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Yitzhak, son of Nethka Zimerman
Like Lost Sheep
June 24, 1941. It was the third day of the German-Russian war. The Soviet authorities had begun retreating from our area, and to us it appeared that the Red Army troops were in total pandemonium. We too, the Jews of Kurenitz, were panicking. We watched the Red Army turning to the east. "Where would we go?" we asked desperately, running for advice from one neighbor to the next. Each one of us knew of the impending disaster. But still some Jews consoled themselves and others by saying, "It is impossible that the renowned Red Army would be defeated so easily". They said, "This must be part of their tactics to win the war. You will see, tomorrow or the next day theyÕll get reinforcements and the whole situation will change."
Other Jews would console each other announcing "the Germans only hate the wealthy Jews. Since there weren't any rich Jews amongst us in Kurenitz after the period of Soviet rule, which had made everyone of us equally poor". So, they reasoned, "we had no reason to worry". Kurenitz buzzed with these kinds of conversations as the German army entered the town.
The same day, on Tuesday afternoon, we saw the troops of the Red Army rapidly fleeing from the advancing German army. Wounded Russian soldiers, lost and confused ran around, trying to find shelter. German planes flew very low, almost touching the roofs of the houses. The Germans planted seeds of death in the midst of the running troops. They also killed peaceful shepherds and their herds.
All of our reasoning and calculations ceased with the sounds of the slaughter. The Jews searched frantically for a place to hide themselves. Many went east with the retreating army, but only a few managed to cross the border. Most of them were stuck in the little shtetls east of Kurenitz, such as Dockshitz and Dolhinov. The ones who stayed in town prayed for pity from heaven.
We started gathering a few families together like lost, lonely sheep. We felt the danger was all around us, so we clung to each other. We believed that if we all huddled together we would be safer.
I remember a Saturday morning a week after the war had started. It was a beautiful, clear June day, beaming with natural splendor. All the cedar trees at the end of Mydell Street were covered in bright green aura, as if they were mocking our dark fears. Then the first Germans arrived in Kurenitz. They were known as the 'Spearheads' and it was their mission to scout out the area before the actual army was brought in. (In reality, there had been Germans in Kurenitz on the fourth day of the war, but they were paratroopers disguised as members of the Red Army.) The scouts came from the fields near the Savina Forest. They crossed Mydell Street and continued toward Poken. A few of them saw my father and asked him mockingly, "Nou, harasha tasiviatsa?" (Do you live comfortably?).
My family and I lived on Dolhinov Street, near the center of Kurenitz. When we learned of the Germans' arrival, we left our apartment and moved to Sweshtchefola at the end of Mydell Street. We had always thought of Sweshtchefola as the end of the earth, the area was on the outskirts of the village and was largely Christian, but now we felt more hidden there, and safer.
I remember that Saturday well indeed. Our family gathered in Uncle Yesha's yard that afternoon. The yard was big, and open to the surrounding roads and the fields, including the road to Balashi.
Suddenly, as we stood there, discussing what to do, I saw an armed car coming from the direction of Mydell Street. At first we were hopeful, and thought it was a Soviet car, but as the car approached, we saw the white and yellow flag and the black swastika of the German army.
"The Philistines," I said, and everyone froze.
'This is the end,' we thought, but a miracle occurred. The soldiers said 'hello' respectfully and greeted us politely. The unexpected attitude of the German troops improved our spirits and bolstered our hopes for the future. Uncle Yesha was very excited and a passage from Tehilim (Psalm) came to his mouth.
"The ones that sow with tears, harvest with happiness, " he recited. The family began discussing the situation. Uncle Yesha was convinced that we were still safe and that the future would be bright. He believed that we would be awarded despite the fear that was haunting us. Our imagination, he claimed, allowed us to get carried away.
The German tank drove to Mydell Street and across the market, and a short time later, we saw it returning and going to Balashi in the direction of Kribitz
The town was left without any rulers, a situation that left us at the mercy of thieves and pillagers. The villagers from the surrounding farms attacked the town. They came with sacks, saws, and axes and began robbing and looting. This was our introduction to the impending disaster that would soon sweep us away. The biggest mobs came from the villages of Starazi, Karutoca, and Zuriych. Desperation was everywhere, but still we worried that much worse was coming. Lieba Gotzes' and Sharel Berman put up a fight, but they were cruelly beaten by the robbers.
In some cases, the gentiles tried to protect us. We must remember Mishka Tkatzonik, who walked out of his house with an axe in his hand and wouldn't let anyone rob the Jewish homes in his neighborhood: the home of Mikhail Alperovich from Badonova, the homes of the daughters of Chaim Michael and my home. He continued to treat the Jews with equal kindness and honor throughout the war.
Later, a temporary police squadron was organized to "keep the peace". The most despicable and cruel of the town's citizens became participants in this squadron. They retained their duties under the leadership of Doctor Shestokovitz throughout the duration of the German oppression. However, at the moment of its creation, the police squadron consisted jointly of gentiles and Jews. A watch patrol was organized to protect the towns' Jews.
Already, on the first day of the Germans' arrival, two people had died. They were my relatives and shared the same name of Shimon Zimmerman. One of them was the son of my Uncle Yesha. Uncle Yesha, who had so recently hoped that the future would bring a harvest of happinessÉ The other was the son of my brother, Yermiyau. The two cousins were killed while on their way to return the weapons they had carried during their shifts as members of the temporary police. As they walked towards the makeshift police station that had been recently established, the Germans caught them and took them to the nearby village of Horidovich, which lay two kilometers from Kurenitz. There they murdered the two young men. None of the townspeople knew where they had disappeared to. The Jews didnÕt dare leave their homes; German troops were moving east and it was extremely dangerous to cross the streets. It was only a few weeks later that two villagers from Horidovich came to town and reported that they had found two bodies and had guessed their identities from their clothes. The parents of the boys went to retrieve the bodies with one of the gentiles. It was a very dangerous mission, but eventually, they were able give the cousins a Jewish burial.
On the day that the two boys were murdered, the top German officer in our area ordered all male Jewish residents between the ages of sixteen to sixty, to present themselves at the market at exactly one in the afternoon. Anyone refusing would be killed wherever they were found.
Torture and Killing
All the male Jews of the town, fathers and children, grandfathers and grandchildren, were forced to stand in the middle of the market surrounded by German soldiers with machine guns, waiting for their fate. Women with little children in their arms and men older than sixty stood at a distance and cried for their townspeople, but they were not allowed to approach the area. We stood like this for three hours on a hot summer day. We were frozen with fear. We didnÕt even cry when Shatzs came out of the police station and let us know that the high officer would soon come and we would know when we would be taken from there.
A few moments later, the head of the Gestapo came out and gave us a 'beautiful speech'. He listed all the wonderful things that had befallen us being under the wings of the Third Reich. Now, he reasoned, we had one duty!-- to obey their orders and work for the German army. Also, he demanded that we put special signs on our clothing to show that we are Jews. In addition, he ordered us to elect a Jewish committee that would serve as the official connection with our new rulers.
This was the first month. Later, the German army moved east and the front moved far away from us. Jews were forced to work for the Germans with no pay. People somehow got used to the situation and now what they wished for most was for the Germans to lose the war soon, and for the difficult period to pass with relative peace.
The Germans began transferring Soviet POWs through town. The Soviet POWs would be rounded up together in the meat markets at end of Dolhinov Street as soon as they arrived. The Jews would cook food for them and give them water. They used the barrels belonging to the fire department, filled them with water, and the Jews would be harnessed and carry the barrels like horses on their backs. But we got used to that too.
One day, a few Jews from the town of Sventzian came to town and told us a horrible tale. They said that by some miracle they had survived, but that the rest of the Jews in their town had been killed. People asked each other how could an entire community be slaughtered for no reason. We couldn't accept the idea of such a monstrous occurrence. And when we finally found out that the story was true, some of us continued to reason that there was hope for our town. They said:
"Sventzian, after all, was part of Lithuania in the days of Soviet rule, and during that time many residents of Sventzian had developed a stereotype image of the Jews as Communist supporters". Others said, "In addition, the Lithuanians are known as having a very cruel nature". "And so," they said, "itÕs hardly surprising that the Sventzians had decided to 'avenge' themselves against their Jewish neighbors." But here, we believed, that could never happen.
A civil town committee was elected headed by Polish people who had been chased out by the Communist authority during the Soviet days.
The lowest class of the mob that now joined the police force frequently caused troubles for us. They demanded that the Jews make them clothing. They wanted boots and hats, and often even those demands that we promptly met wouldn't appease them. Once in a while, they would come to our homes and take whatever they desired.
Weeks passed and it was time for Rosh Hashanah. Many of the previously non-religious Jews experienced a renewal of their ancient faith. They fasted and read the Torah and prayed. I remember my sisters, Sheina and Myna, who had previously been non-practicing Jews, now became orthodox. They would fast twice a week, and read the Torah, now they found emotional aid in the Jewish religion. They said that if we returned to God fully, our punishment would subside. Myna would stand for many hours next to her babyÕs carriage with a kerchief on her head, and say passages from the Torah, with tears flowing and a spirit of true conviction. There were many others in town just like her. Hardly anyone went outdoors, except for those who had to be part of the forced labor troop. Some Jews were sent to Vilejka, others to Poken. The people that didnÕt join the forced labor troop tried to hide in their homes. If anyone wanted to go to a neighbor's home, he would go through the yards and gardens in secret. To go into the street was to take your life in your hands.
The head of the police was a gentile named Aazevich from the village Kolbaszina. He was a one-eyed villager whoÕd had the nature of a murderer from the day of his birth. His assistants were Sherangovich, a Polish killer from a small village next to Kasziniavitch, and Belzniyook the bastard son of a cleaning lady at the slaughter house. All three were the worst humans to be found in the area. Motoros, the head of the town committee, was a Polish gentile that was very good to the Jews. He gave us permission on Rosh Hashanah to go to the synagogue. Prior to the Russian invasion he was the principal of the school.
On the day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Moshe Feldman stood before the congregation. How can one describe the prayer that day? The pain and the tears flowedÉ Most of the people that came to the synagogue lived close by. I remembered that this was a sunny day and that my neighbor Mikhail Alperovich and I couldnÕt walk through the fields as we usually did at those times. Instead, we decided to go through the streets, though not on the sidewalk (Jews were not allowed to walk on the sidewalk). The streets were empty and seemed to us as dangerous to cross as a dark, never ending forest., Rabbi Moshe Feldman cried even after the prayer, as we left the synagogue he blessed each one of us and said, "Shana tovah my dear shana tovah. You must hope until the last minute. Even if a sharp sword is held to your throat, you must not despair. God will not let go of his people."
On that day Motoros, the head of the town committee, sent us a message warning us that we must not go to synagogue on the second day of the holiday because the police were planning to interrupt the prayers and cause havoc. So, on the second day we all stayed in our homes, praying separately. This is how the holidays passed.
In Shminit Hazerets, seventy members of the Gestapo came to town. We were very scared no one knew the reason for the visit. They went to police headquarters, stayed for a few hours and then they returned to Vilejka. During the night, the local police went to different homes, and arrested Jews that were suspected of being Communists.
The next day, on Simchat Torah, the Gestapo came to town again. They took the prisoners out to the market and had them joined by their families: wives, children and parents. They handed them shovels and transferred them through Kosita Street to the forest across from the Jewish cemetery. There they were told to dig two holes. Then they were ordered to strip. Then they killed them. First they shot the men, and then the women, a total of fifty-four in all. We mourned these men and women who were pure, and innocent and yet, had been killed, but we continued with our sad life knowing there was no authority we could protest to.
I will never forget the night of that massacre. It was a dark night. We sat in our house sad and scared. Suddenly there were knocks on the door. I went to the door carefully, in fear, and whispered "Who is there?" I heard the voice of a child saying, "Open the door for me. DonÕt be scared- its me the little child of Yankel, the shoemaker. Let me just get warm."
We opened the door and let him in. He looked pale and skinny and he was shivering from the cold. He told us that he had been taken with his father and mother to be slaughtered, but he had escaped and hid in bushes until darkness had descended.
"The Germans," said the child, "are big liars. They said that they were taking us to work. But I knew that a little child like me couldnÕt work with such big shovel. I knew that they were going to kill us. I prayed that maybe God would watch for me and that IÕd survive." We all sat there crying.
Months later, the child and his sister were murdered in the Vilejka camp.
The homes of the murdered families were robbed by the Germans and their helpers. Their houses were left without doors and windows, screaming for a reason why, for answer, or an explanation. But the heartless world was deaf to their screams.
Reason told us that we were lost. We had no escape, so people started trusting and believing irrational beliefs: dreams and miracles, deeds and signs that would console them. Some people started believing in numerology. When the number of the murdered reached sixty-six, I heard Mendel Zalman say that in psalm, passage number sixty-six reads, "hosienou adonai ki bau mayim ad nefesh ÉGod save us because water came up to our soul" Éin conclusion he said: "and now g-d will save us"
We had no connection to the outside world: no newspaper or radio. We weren't allowed to talk to the Christians. There was a strict law forbidding Christians from getting in touch with any Jews. Once in a while, a Christian would come to us and whisper something, but we never knew if what they told us had any substance. The Saturday after the fifty-four were killed, the Christians that worked for the telephone company came and told us that they saw with their owns eyes how the Germans took the Jews of Molodechno, men, women, and babies, and murdered them all.
A Bloody Winter
The Jews of the town were planning escapes. Outside of the town the dangers we would face seemed much bigger. We were surrounded by human wolves demanding our souls. They wanted our possessions and anything that would be left over after we perished. So we started looking for a hiding place in the town itself. People started building hideouts in double walls, in fireplaces, and in basements. Each one of us became an engineer and many people showed great creative inventive skills. Meanwhile, winter had arrived. This year it had come early.
Some time passed and we didnÕt hear of any killings in the area. This was interpreted as a good omen, and people started hoping against hope. Some said that Hitler had forbidden any more killings, and people that worked diligently for the Germans believed that they would pass the wartime peacefully.
Many Jews believed they would be spared until February 1, 1942 came. On that day the Gestapo came to Vilejka and moved into the courthouse that was next to the prison. They immediately ordered some Jews to report for work. Ten people were sent to do labor. They only worked for one day, and in reward they were cruelly beaten. Many returned with no teeth. Immediately after this incident, the Germans started annihilating the Jews in the Vilejka district. Almost daily, refugees from other towns who escaped death came to our town. We waited for our turn.
On March 15, a few Gestapo men came to Kurenitz. They played a bloody game. They killed thirteen people, and left. I remember that bloody day in the month of Shvat. It was a Sunday and the weather was unusually cold. Suddenly we saw Merill, the wife of Ortsik Alperovich, running in panic. On her head she wore a kerchief like the villagers do and she looked as if she were being chased by a monster. We yelled to her from our door, "What happened Merill?"
"DonÕt ask," she said as she ran, "The murderers have come to town!"
We panicked. What should we do? Where should we run and hide? My wife said we should hide behind the house. We went to the doorstep of our neighbors.
As we hid we heard and saw Egoff. He wore a KosakÕs' hat and a long black fur coat, and in his hand, he held a whip. He was a famous killer whose name alone, could inspire fear. He called to Fredkin, the husband of Zelda, and asked him something. Fredkin showed him our house and Mikhail AlperovichÕs house A few minutes later, he entered our home. My wife Mina returned home. He greeted her politely and asked if Jews lived there, and where there were other Jewish homes. She pointed to Fredkin and Mikhail's house. Then he went to Michael's house and asked questions, but even then, he was not satisfied. He went to Christian homes and asked questions.
We knew something was going to happen, and decided to go to our hiding place. We were once told by a Christian woman who cleaned the Polish school, that there was a huge basement under the school, and she suggested it as a good hiding place when trouble arose. She also told me that Nahum Alperovich and Nyomka Shulman had stayed there many times.
I took my children and hurried to the Christian womanÕs home. This was on Sunday and the street was full of Christians that came to pray. After we stayed there for a short time, we had to leave. One of the policemen that knew us came by and although he was not outwardly hostile, the woman was very worried. The policeman told us to not concern ourselves needlessly, that the Gestapo came to Kurenitz but they were just mugging the Jews not killing them. But from his expression I thought it better not to go back home. We left the house and decided to walk along the train tracks toward one of the neighboring villages. A Christian woman who saw us went to town to report that Jews were running away. The police came after us. On that day the SS killed only people that tried to run away. They were most likely going to catch us had not coincident saved us. A Christian villager from Lipnivitz went to doctor Shostokoviz and in his sled he brought some harvest in exchange for his visit. When he reached Kurenitz he found out that while he was riding, the harvest sack fell from his sled and so he hurried to find the lost sack. On his return he took us in his sled and all the time hurried his horse. The German chased us and after many troubles we reached Ratzka, a little village near by safely. We stayed there for a short time and then returned.
On that Sunday the Germans killed 13 Jews, amongst them the town rabbi, the dear Moshe Feldman. He suffered many tortures till his death. They threw him in the central market and broke his arms and legs and there he was left to die. It was a few days before they let us bring him to Jewish burial.
Shatz, the head of the Judenrat arranged that the ghetto that would be inhabited by professional Jews would be under the German governor of the region, Shmidt. About a hundred people were registered as professionals and after a few days, they were transferred to Vilejka and a month later joined with their families.
On 3/27 the policemen of Kurenitz played a bloody game and killed 32 people amongst them: Yitza Chatzties'(Charles Gelmans' father) with two daughters, Minzikovitz and his family. We risked our lives and we took the holy martyrs to Jewish burial in Jewish cemetery. It was a very cold winter and Artzik Gutzes(Dinerstein), Chaim Sozkover, Sara-eshkas' husband, and I took the bodies and brought them to the cemetery. For two days we had to burn the frozen ground till we could dig graves and we buried them separately men and women.
Other then the killings by the Gestapo there were separate killings of single Jews by the local policemen. One policeman that was particularly cruel was the one that lived near Kasinevitz. He was a detective during the Polish days and was in hiding during the soviet days. He was the one that killed the two boys; one was the grandson of Leib Motosov, the other was the son of Natan son of Meir-Shalom Shulman. Both were sixteen and were sent to work for the Germans. He also killed the 32 Jews and later he killed my sisters.
In the months of Shvat and Adar all the shtetls in our district were annihilated. Vilejka, Ilya, Krasna, Volozin, Redshkovich, Rakov, Evia, Eivnitz and more.
Any plans that we had about hiding in the forest were postponed since the winter was such a tough one. Even the partisans were not in the forests yet. After every "actzia" (action of systematic killing) the Gestapo would lie to the Jews and say that this is the very last massacre. After every killing the killers were ready with the reasoning and stories. They would say that this time the Jews were killed for using a radio that was connecting the townspeople with the partisans, the next killing the Germans came with another story like finding a gun.
At the month of Shvat and Adar there were killings everyday. So all hope was lost. Many thought that death was better than living in such fear.
There were some Christians that pretended to be Jew lovers and told us that they'd keep our belongings to help us during bad situations. I remember that one day when I went to the well for water I met one of my friends, a Christian villager. When he saw my water container, all shiny and new, he liked it and said "Itzka what do you need this kettle for? Instead of letting the kettle fall in hands of stranger why donÕt you give to me? I answered, "DonÕt wait so impatiently for my death. IÕm still hoping to survive." The Christian stood there embarrassed. He was after all a friend, so he apologized. "I don't think of you badly. God bless you and you'll stay alive. I was just saying rather than let a stranger take your kettle its better that a friend takes it''. Some Christians would come and tell us they heard from an official source that the slaughter would be on that date or another and suggested that the Jews hide in another town.
The Fate of the Escapees
My two sisters Myna and Sheina were both married and had babies. One had a one-year-old and the other a nine-month-old baby. One day a Christian woman came to them and said that she had heard from official sources that two weeks before Passover of 1942 they were going to slaughter the Jews of Kurenitz. She suggested running away. My two sisters went to the village Litvinki, they hired a carriage and paid with good money to be taken to Dolhinov since there it was quiet at that point (relatively speaking).
They left at nighttime. The Christian villager took them in the direction of Kribitz through the village Nieka. Unluckily for them that was on the same night that the killer Sherangovich took the Jews of Nieka to Vilejka to be killed. While he was transferring them, he ran into my two sisters and demanded they join the group. When the group came near Kurenitz the villager with the carriage left the group and went on a side trail that led to Litvinki so my sisters managed to escape. When Sherangovich reached Vilejka and checked the group he realized that my two sisters, their babies and the villager were missing. Immediately he sent police to start the search. First they found the villager and threatened that if he didnÕt tell where the women were, he and his family members would be hanged. The villager was brutally tortured but did not say. The rest of the villagers from Litvinki looked for my sisters all day, wanting to save their village from punishment, and just before dawn they found my sisters. One was hiding at the Doba Zife house and the other at the house of Sarah Shifra Torov. They took my sisters with their babies half-naked. Doba and her four children were taken too. They made them run in the deep snow holding their babies underarm. The whole way they hit and tortured them. When they reached Vilejka, they put them in a cold prison cell with no food. The bigger torture started the next day. The babies were torn to pieces in front of my sistersÕ eyes. Then they took their teeth out and broke their arms and legs till their pure souls went to heaven.
I was told of this by one of the policemen that witnessed the horror.
Three days prior to Passover 1942, we gathered in Mikhail Alperovitz's house to bake matzos. It was absolutely impossible for us to celebrate the holiday according to the usual tradition. We baked the matzos in secret. Someone was watching the house from the outside. Inside, we cleaned the oven for Passover and from eight kilograms of flour that I had, we baked "poor bread" to remember the Jews in Egypt. While we were getting ready to celebrate, the wife of Chaim, son of Elchanan and Chana Alperovitz, came to our house and told us a horror story about the slaughter of the Jews in Dolhinov, that she had miraculously managed to escape. The next day, we saw a truck full of the furniture and belongings of the Dolhinov Jews. Our celebration for the freeing of the Jews from slavery in Egypt was very very somber that year.
At about the same time, three families from Kurenitz decided to escape the town for the deep forest. Amongst them were Zishka, son of Shimon Alperovitz, his wife, Bashka Chana, and their son Yechiel, Faybush, son of Chaim Shulman, with his wife and two children, Menucha Payken and Burl Chadash. They all managed to get fake documents saying that they were travelling to the forest to work for the Germans. They were able to reach the woods safely and found a place to settle. But a villager that lived near the forest brought the Germans to their hiding place and they were killed right there. Just around Passover the Germans brought their bodies to town to show us that any escapees would be found and killed. The horrible fate of the escapees caused others who were planning to escape to the forest to re-think their plans. Right after Passover, Zev Kupershtooch, who worked at the wheat mill, was taken straight from work to Vilejka and there he was tortured and killed.
We Dream of the Forest
Spring came. Everything around us was teeming with life. Weeds were sprouting, trees were flowering, and once again we started thinking of escape. But to accomplish this was very difficult and dangerous, and in the back of our minds, we remembered the fate of the three families, and that was preventing us from making a serious attempt at it. Some people also warned us that if a few of us escaped, it might cause the killing of the rest of the Jews in town.
We had a friend, a poor Christian widow by the name of Anna. She was from the village Lipnovich. Prior to the war, she would come to me for advice and help with her legal documents. She was still loyal to us, and very deeply wanted to help us. Often, she would secretly enter our house, even though the deed was punishable by death. When she came over, she would tell us about what was happening in the outside world. One day, right after Passover, she entered our yard and brought a big container full of sour cream. She tried to comfort us.
"My dear," said Anna, "the Germans will be annihilated. Their heads will break. Do you know what happened last night? In the little village Retzka, the Partisans came to the mill that belonged to Kundra. They took everything he had in the mill. They didn't just come as ordinary people. They wore Red Army uniforms. When they left, they burned the mill and left a letter. The letter said, 'We, the partisans, took everything for our army.'" Then she continued, "Well, Itzka, they are not merchants, they're not going to sell the flour. If they took such a large amount of flour, it's a sign that they have a huge army. People say that the forests are filled with them. You will see, my dear, the Germans will have their heads broken. They will suffer a great defeat. My dear, you must escape to the forest." We knew that she was highly exaggerating, but she did it out of good will, wishing to comfort us and make us happy. We were very excited about her news.
The summer of 1942 came. The Germans announced that their army was going deeper and deeper into the Russian territory. As usual, they announced the news from the war front on huge posters that they hung all over the town's walls. They told us that the whole Red Army was destroyed, but we had other signs to tell us what was going on. In our hearts we followed our own signs, and not the German posters. Each night we saw hundreds of Soviet airplanes going toward Germany. They blew up German bases all around us. Every night we heard explosions. Terrorist attacks by the Partisans were usually aimed at railroads. We interpreted this event as a sign that there was some hope for us.
Many others amongst us continued putting their trust and hope in tales of miracles and dreams. I remember that Fayga Rivka, the wife of Mendel Kanterovich, had a dream that became the main subject of many discussions in town. In her dream, Fayga Rivka saw the most despised killer Sherangovich come to town and all of a sudden the Gestapo members jumped him and killed him right on the spot. Many believed that this was an omen that the Day of Judgment would come to the killer Sherangovich from Karsinievitz. Sure enough, sometime in May or June, a group of Germans entered the town. They caught Sherangovich and killed him. Everyone saw this as a sign from God.
Yeshaya Shmukler also had a dream. In his dream he saw all of his relatives who had departed this world. They came to him and said, "Your wife is ready to deliver a boy. You should call the boy `YehoshuaÕ because aid is coming soon." Yeshaya's wife did deliver a boy, and on a suggestion of Mendel Zalman Roshkas', the boy was named Yehoshua.
One day, we got an order that all men and women must take part in the labor force. We were all told to clear the forest around the train tracks, 150 meters from each side, so that the Partisans would have a harder time reaching the tracks without being seen by the German guards. Each morning, at seven exactly, we had to show up for work. The place we had to meet was by the apartment that was used as the headquarters for the Judenrat. From there we were taken to work. This job lasted for three weeks, and ended on September 9, 1942, three days prior to Rosh Hashanah.
Almost all the Jews from towns in the area were annihilated at this point. It seemed as if only our town survived. Daily, the killers would give us stale compliments. They would say, "The Jews of Kurenitz are useful Jews, and nothing bad will happen to you." We heard it everyday until the day the Holocaust reached our beloved home town.
The Day of Slaughter and Escape
It was Wednesday, very early in the morning, around five o'clock. I heard the loud noise of trucks going back and forth on the street. It was absolutely obvious to us that something was going to happen that day. My heart told me that this was the day of slaughter. I approached my wife and told her about my dark fears, and immediately returned to the window to watch. A few minutes later, I saw cars full of Gestapo men drive through the street. Outside it was still dark. Light would come at around six o'clock. We dressed our two children so that we would be ready to escape. For a moment, a thought came to me. Maybe my senses are betraying me, and my assumptions are wrong. Still, we sat nervously, listening to the sounds from outside. I went out to the yard to listen. I could hear shots from a machine gun. All around there was a thick fog that prevented me from seeing more than a few meters ahead. I returned home and told my wife, "We must not wait. The fog will aid us with our escape."
So we took our children in our arms, and started running through our garden into the direction of Poken. Our aim was first to get to the Segovitz Forest. While we were still in the garden, our Christian neighbor (the one that, you might remember, had a big tree in his yard, and right next to his wall there was a bench that people used for rest while walking on Dolhinov Street) stepped in front of us, preventing us from continuing. He forced us to return. He never said anything. Until today, his aim is still a mystery. Was he trying to hurt us or save us? Whatever his intention was, the result was in our favor.
The town was tightly surrounded by German guards in a ring formation. If we had continued running, we would surely have fallen in the hands of the Germans. Anyway, we had to return home. Light came, and we didn't know what to do. I walked to the house of Mikhail, our neighbor. In his home he had a little factory for oil, and on the wall there was a big sign saying that this was a factory, so a few families gathered there. We all thought this sign might confuse the Germans and that they would assume that no Jews lived there. There was the Rugbin family from Vilejka, and the family of Yosef the son of Motel Leib Kopershtook. Sometime earlier, Zev Kopershtook had been murdered. So now Yosef would go to sleep at his parentsÕ home in the central market, but his wife and children would sleep at Mikhail's house. On this particular morning, Yosef didn't return and his wife, Rachel, was very worried. While we were standing at the entrance to Mikhail's house, we saw from the market-side, Mishka Takchonik's sister, a Christian woman, approaching. When she came near us, she yelled at us, "Why are you standing there like that, stupid Jews? Didn't you hear what is happening in town? Quickly, hide! Half of the town's Jews are already murdered, and you are standing here as if nothing has happened."
We started running, looking for a haven. In moments like this one, the quest for life increases greatly. We started saying our good-byes to each other; we kissed one another and asked for forgiveness. Each one of us assumed that this was his last day on Earth. It was already 9:30 in the morning, when we entered our homes. We sat there waiting. We assumed that any minute the murderers would come and take us. All of a sudden an idea occurred to us. We told our child to go outside, and to hang our key on the outside door, and then lock the door. Our boy did it, and we helped him get back in through the window, closing the shutters after him.
We had a hiding place under the floor, right under the bed. We lifted the loose planks of wood and entered the hole. We all got into our hideout and lay there for an hour or two. Then we heard sounds of voices and steps from the outside. We heard people speaking German and Polish. Someone said, "The door is locked here. There's nothing to look for." The sound of the steps seemed to be going away. Quietly, I left the hideout, and approached the window to look. I saw a car loaded with planks of firewood. It was driven by the Gestapo. I returned to the hideout, and shortly we all fell into a deep sleep. We woke up at four in the afternoon. There was total silence surrounding us. Once in a while, we heard loud steps. When my wife woke up she said, "Maybe it was all a bad dream."
Once again, I got out of the hideout and approached the window that was facing the yard of our neighbor, Mikhail. I saw that his house had been ransacked, and all his belongings were thrown into the yard. I left that window and went to the window that faced the street. There, I saw a horrible image. Two Gestapo men were holding Rachel, the wife of Yosef Kopershtook, with her two children. She was crying and begging, asking for pity, but they kept hitting her and the children with the butt of their rifles and pushing them toward the market. Then I saw them taking Mina, the daughter of Chaim Michael, her face pale, full of anger and hate. She was fighting the Germans, screaming insults in their faces and refusing to walk. Finally, they shot her on the spot and she fell down in the middle of the street, bleeding. This sight paralyzed me. I felt as if it were impossible for me to move. I felt that any minute, they would come here and take us.
When I was able to move, I returned to the hideout and told my wife what I saw. I knew that time was running out. We must leave. It was September, and the days were already short. The dark evening shadows were enveloping the last day on earth of the Jewish Kurenitz. Dusk was coming, and I told my wife, "Soon it will be dark. We must leave immediately." It was the last day of the Jewish month, and it was very foggy and dark. We got out of the hideout, dressed warmly, took our children, and left for the dark and the mysterious world outside. We had no clear plans and no aim. At that minute, we had one prayer in our heart: let us cross the road to Poken village peacefully. When we approached the village, dogs started barking and immediately there was shooting. They started throwing flares in the air. We lay down flat on the ground among the cabbage and plants that were in the garden. We lay there for a long time, until it quieted down. Then we crawled to the village, which only had one street. We crossed it, and hurried to reach the Sekovitz forest. When we were three hundred feet past the village, we heard more shooting, but now we were past the danger zone. The night was very dark, and we walked through fields of potatoes. For a few minutes we stopped and looked in the direction of Kurenitz. We could see a big bonfire at the edge of Mydell Street, and we could smell burning bodies. We thought that we were the only survivors: four souls, mother, father and their two children, the last of a holy and renowned community. We stood there crying quietly to the dark, but pretty soon we remembered that this was no time for crying and eulogy. We had to distance ourselves from where we were. We continued on our way until we reached the forest. We started discussing our situation, and we reached one conclusion: we were sentenced to death. The winter was approaching, we didn't have appropriate clothes, and we had no food. We were being chased, and death could come from the cruel winter, with its storms and snow, from hunger and disease, from wild forest animals or, most likely, from the human wolves. Everywhere we might go, death awaited us. This was our rationale and reality, but our urge to survive didn't allow us to analyze our situation. It ordered us to stop thinking, and to start fightingÉfighting with any means possible. We walked deeper into the woods, about half a kilometer. We were hungry and exhausted. We lay down on the cold ground to rest, and had a short nap. All of a sudden we heard someone walking near us. My wife whispered to me, "Itzhak, are you asleep? Someone is walking here. Could it be the Germans? How could it be that they would chase us at night in the forest?" I whispered to her, "We must not move. If we lie down, they won't see us in the dark, but if we move and try to escape they'll see us." So we lay there quietly listening intently. We heard sounds of steps, and then a voice of a child, "Mama, mama." Immediately we understood that these were our brothers, and I cried out, "Jews, come here." It was our neighbors Mikhail Alperovich from Badanova, his wife and two children, and the husband of Zelda, the daughter of Chaim Michael. We sat together discussing the situation, suggesting where we should go. They were all very happy to see me since it was well known that I was, since my teenage days, a traveler. I used to join my father in his travels around the villages and forests, and my experience, they realized could be very useful now. Deeper in the Forest We rested a bit, but since I was chosen as the guide, I encouraged them to move ahead rapidly. To sit here, next to town, was extremely dangerous. We had to distance ourselves from any populated areas and go deep into the forest. Our assumption was right. Many days later, I was told that on the same day the Germans had caught Herschel, the oven-maker, and his family, eight souls, in the forest not far from Kurenitz, and killed them all. I didn't have a compass, but my senses guided me in finding trails that would take us to the deepest woods. When we got about five kilometers away from the town, the woods became very dense and it was almost impossible to walk. We were scratched and hurt from the tree branches, and we had to carry our young children in our arms. That's where we were at dawn, when rain came down and drenched us. It was our second day without food. When we left home, we only had one piece of bread, and we'd given that to our children. All that day we stayed in that area, and at night we decided to go to the Sakovitz village to ask for food. Mikhail had a Christian friend in Sakovitz by the name of Ivan, who used to work for Mikhail in the days of Polish rule. Earlier, Mikhail had given him many of his possessions to store in his house for safekeeping. Now Mikhail wholeheartedly believed that if he came to Ivan, Ivan would be very happy to see him, and would do whatever he could to feed us with the best that he could offer. But Mikhail didn't know how to get from where we were to Sakovitz, so Rugbin and I joined him to show him the way. For a long hour, we walked through the thick woods until we found the village. We walked through the fields so that the villagers wouldn't see us. We knocked on Ivan's door. When he saw us, he looked extremely scared, as if we were ghosts that had come from the grave. He murmured, "Have pity. Quickly run away from here. In God's name, run away and saves yourselves and me. There are many Germans in the village. If they see you in my house they'll kill me and you together." Mikhail and Rugbin were ready to run, but I was not so easy to trick, so I just stood there and said, "We have no reason to save ourselves, and you must give us bread. We have nothing to lose. Better we die from a bullet than from starvation." Knowing the soul of the beast, it was clear to me that begging would not suffice. So I continued, in a threatening voice, "If you won't give us bread, we will burn your home and your possessions. We are people with a death sentence hanging over our heads. We have nothing to lose. You must know that we intend to keep our threats." Ivan the Christian farmer looked at us in terror. He brought a huge loaf of bread. It could easily have weighed as much as eight kilos. We left to return to our families with the supplies. We trudged on for miles and miles through the forest, we got lost for a short while, but finally, we found the women and children. We also brought water in bottles, and we divided the food and the drink amongst the group. This experience was an important lesson for me. It was like a candle that lit my steps through our journey in the forest. We had to be strong in spirit. We couldn't afford to give up or to be depressed. Even the shadow of defeat could kill us. We spent that night in the forest. The next morning, which was the eve of Rosh Hashanah, we decided to move forward. My plan was to reach the Pelita, a place were Leib Motosov had a factory prior to WWI. While we were walking, Mikhail decided to separate from us and to go to the village Kalin. There, he said, lived a gentile that he had given the rest of his belongings to, and who had promised to help him whenever he needed aid. So Mikhail and his wife went to this man's home. We were later told that when the man saw them, he murdered them with his own hands. We continued without them. It was about ten in the morning. The sun slanted through the tree branches, and a deep silence filled the woods. The towering pine trees swayed with the wind from side to side. The sound resonated like the hum of a devotional prayer. The sounds of birds were heard everywhere, echoing in the woods. How we envied the birds that were free to sing and call each other, while we were here, whispering, walking on our tip-toes, lost and fearful, not knowing what danger zone we might reach next. All of a sudden, I smelled smoke. In panic, we leapt into the bushes, fearing that there were people nearby who might see us. Our eyes were searching, our ears were listening, and our minds wondered what the origin of this smoke could be. Could it be shepherds from the neighboring village that made a bonfire in the woods? Or maybe it was Jews who had escaped? All of a sudden, I saw a group of people, gathered a short distance from the road. It was Israel Alperovitz, our town's butcher, his wife Chaya, their son Yosil, and the wife of Zondil their other son. They must have heard us approaching, because they ran into the forest. I wanted to calm them down, but I knew it was dangerous to yell, so I waved my hands and gave them signals saying that they should lie on the ground. They recognized me, and lay down on the ground, sighing with relief. When we reached them, we asked them why they had chosen a rest place so near the road. Not only were they resting there, but they had started a bonfire that could easily reveal their whereabouts. Israel replied that they were afraid to enter the deep woods. The women asked desperately, "What will happen to us? Who will be with us? Where will we go?" I was very familiar with the surrounding area and I said, "First we must go to the deeper woods, in the middle of the forest, as far as we can from the road. " I was still full of energy, and eager to fight against our bitter fate. My senses were sharpened, and in my heart I had many ideas and thoughts about how to survive. But they looked so defeated. We walked towards the deeper woods for about an hour. When I thought that we were a good distance from the road, we sat down and built a small bonfire. Israel brought out from his bag his talit and tfilin, and said, "Look, Yitzhak. God bless, I succeeded in taking this so that at least I will have a talit at the hour of my death." We sat on the ground and Israel told us how he was saved, and how he succeeded to leave town on the day of the slaughter: Early in the morning, he had walked to the minyan to pray. He made his way through the empty lots amongst the homes in the alley. While he was walking, he ran into some Jews who told him that the Germans had come into the town and were kidnapping Jews. Immediately, he ran home and led his family to their hiding place under the floor, where they sat the entire day. At night they abandoned their hiding place, and walked to Poken village, to the home of the gentile Kashtzook, who was extremely gracious. He took them under his wing, gave them a loaf of bread, and walked with them all the way to the forest. Israel was a very religious Jew. He didn't touch the bread. All he ate were the potatoes he had baked in the fire. Around three in the afternoon, a young village girl who looked about seventeen, came from the woods. When she saw us, she waved as if she were giving us a signal, and then she ran away. We still don't know how to explain the signal. A few minutes later there was a barrage of gunshots that seemed to come from the side of the road. We stomped the fire out, destroyed any signs of our having been there, and ran into the woods. I ran first, and everyone else was behind me. We ran for five kilometers, until we found a niche hidden between two small hills, where we lay until darkness came. Where Are We Going? We were three families traveling together. The Rugbin family, Israel Alperovitz family, and my family. We all wondered where exactly we were. The children were lying quietly, saying nothing. They were not a burden. It was as if they understood that we were in a world of horrible occurrences, and that they had to be responsible and acclimate themselves to the situation. We were thirsty and hungry. I estimated that we were somewhere near the village Hob. I remembered that near the village there was a little river, named Maentenna. From my estimation, we were also about three kilometers from the village Stidiyonka. The villagers from Stidiyonka were known as very cruel gentiles. So where should we go, to Hob or to Stidiyonka? In Hob I also knew there were many isolated farm houses, and that lessened the danger, so we chose to go to Hob. We held hands as we walked so that we wouldn't get lost in the darkness. It was the middle of the night by the time we reached the river. We didn't have any cups or anything else we could drink from, so we all fell to the ground and drank directly from the river. From there, we walked through the fields and headed towards the first farm we encountered. There was no light in the house. When we knocked, the farmer asked, "Who is there?" I answered, "Itzka from Kurenitz, the son of Netka from Shvashzapole". He knew me before the war. He approached the window and gave me half a loaf of bread and some onions. We went on, to another farm, and there they also gave us half a loaf. We took some vegetables from the garden, as well as a big gourd that was next to one of the fences, and with all these supplies we returned to the women and children that were waiting at the edge of the river. It was getting very late. We didnÕt have a watch, but we knew it was after midnight. We entered the woods, but couldn't find our original spot. For three hours we roamed around. All of a sudden Israel said, "My dears, I have no energy to continue. I'll stay here." He was much more tired than the rest of us because he didn't eat the bread, so we stopped and lay down on the ground, bundling up with each other. When we woke up, it was already light. A plane flew over the woods, and the sound was unbearable. We realized that today was Rosh Hashanah. Israel put on the talit, stood next to a tree and prayed. He announced that we must pray for all of our townspeople. When he said this, we all started to cry, and we couldn't console ourselves. This was the first big cry after fifteen horrible months. We cried for all that had occurred to us. When the sun set, we continued our journey. We walked towards the village Tzavolitkes. When we were about three hundred meters from the village, we met with more of the townÕs surviving Jews. To my surprise, my sister Rivka with her husband and children, my brother Hilka with his wife, and the daughter of my other brother were among them. I never imagined that anyone of my family survived. They, in turn, had never imagined that I had survived. They lived on Mydell Street, at the spot where the murderers started the killing spree. Once again, we stood there crying, and then continued our journey. Now we had twenty-seven people among our ranks. We entered the village. It was clear to us that as Jews, we belonged to the night. The night, from now on, would be our day. The gentiles didn't dare leave their homes at night. They feared the dark. In this village, we got some bread and onions. That night, we rested in an area between the villages Varoniyatz and Tsavolitzkes, in the middle of the forest. The night was cold, the forest was very dry, and we were dying of thirst. We squeezed plants and sucked their juices. All of sudden, Rugbin remembered that in one of the farms there was a villager that owed him some money for a sewing machine he had bought. We searched for the house of this gentile, and he gave us bread and a pail of milk. We went to him before nighttime. He refused to let us in, telling us to wait outside, and after a short time he brought out the food. He suggested that we never come again, in the daytime, only at night, and he was very astute in his suggestion. We brought the bread and milk to the children, and lay down on the ground to sleep. It was very cold and we couldn't sleep well. We heard the howling of a pack of wolves. They came closer and closer. We were not really scared, but we wanted to get rid of them, so we took some dry branches and lit them with a match we got from the villager. It was a small bonfire, but sufficient to make the wolves disappear. It also warmed us, and made it easier for us to fall asleep. At dawn we awoke, and put out the fire, erased all signs of human population, and traveled to another area. There we ran into a villager from Veronietz who was searching for his horse, which had run away at night. At first we were very scared. Could he be a German agent? But as we continued talking to him, we realized he was an honest and righteous gentile. He told us that we must not stay there. He urged us to go to the Pushtcha, an area deep in the woods, where we would find Jews from the village Nyka who had escaped, and had been hiding there for two months. He started crying and said, "What do they want from you? What do they want from you?" He took bread out of his bag and gave it to the children. He showed us the road to the Pushtcha, and told us that we would also find some Partisans there. "Go there," he said, "and God will be with you." When I think today about this meeting, it warms and encourages me. But on that day, we were cold and suspicious of him, and when he left us, we were scared that he would send the Germans to catch us. In the Deep Pushtcha The Pushtcha was an everglade in our area, measuring about twenty kilometers long, and twelve kilometers wide. There were huge pine trees crowding the area. No man had ever walked in the deepest areas of the Pushtcha. Hundreds of treesÕ limbs lay on the ground where they had fallen during storms, and had been lying there for dozens of years. It was a strange world, dark and wild, a habitat for wolves and wild pigs, foxes and snakes. Not even the villagers of the surrounding area dared to enter the forest. They would travel only to the edges of the forest. There were areas of swamp that one could only walk through in winter, when the swamp froze over. But we were now drawn to the deepest part of the forest. We stood fearfully at the edge for a moment, and wondered, "How could we live here, how could we come and go and find our way?" But even that night we had to stay in the Pushtcha with the children and wives. We walked to the villages Bodka and Talets to obtain some food. Those were the closest villages. When we returned we made a bonfire. We felt much safer, now. We assumed that the Germans would not come there to look for us, even if they knew that Jews were hiding there. They would assure themselves that we would die anyway from starvation and disease. Still, we didn't want to rely totally on our assumptions, so we decided to go as deep as we could, and to watch our step. For now, our main goal was to meet up with the Partisans. On our second day in the Pushtcha, we did just that. We looked at them with tremendous gratitude, as though they were angels from heaven. They greeted us warmly, and joined us. They were dressed very poorly and carried old weapons from WWI. They didn't have much ammunition, only a few bullets. They gave some bread to our children, and were curious to hear of our situation. It seemed to us that they meant well, but they could hardly help us. They had a radio and they told us about what was happening in the world. We sat with them for two hours. They told us about the battle of Stalingrad, they explained to us how to survive in the woods, and they told us in no uncertain terms, that we must never stay in one place for too long, we must change our location a few times a day. They also suggested that we speak quietly because there was echo in the woods, and that we had to whisper and learn signals. They also taught us how to whistle like a common forest bird, and said that if we lost each other, we should use that whistle. We started our long journey in the Pushtcha. We went all around, lengthwise and widthwise, so that we were never in one place for more than a few hours. Throughout our journey, we met many surviving Jews, and they told us details about the slaughter in Kurenitz. From there on started our daily struggle to survive in the Pushtcha, a struggle full of trials and tribulations, a struggle that our horrible fate forced us to face, a struggle that had no comparison or precedent in anything we'd ever heard of, read of or even imagined in our worst nightmares. Generally, the Belarusian villagers in the surrounding areas were sympathetic to us. We received handouts, both from the ones that were behind us ideologically, and the ones that weren't. Some gave out of pity, others gave fearing that we would burn their homes. As time passed, we realized that asking for pity was not as effective as scaring the villagers. We took long pieces of wood and made them look like rifles and, in the dark of night, we went to the villages and threatened them with our "weapons." We also used rough voices and harsh language so that they would think we were Partisans. Our journeys to the villages were ridden with danger. Even the villagers, that we asked handouts from, might have murdered us. Any gentile that would bring a Jew to town, either dead or alive, would receive a bag full of salt as a reward. Salt was a very precious commodity at that time. Sometimes, on our way back from the villages, we weren't able to find our resting places. One family, returning from the village, couldn't find us for two days. Finally we ran into them and brought them back with us. There were many men that acted as policemen for the Germans who lived in the villages around the forest. Among them were included some true murderers. In one "charming pair" were the two sons of Karibi from the village Hob. One was twenty-five and the other, twenty-three; both bloodsucking leeches. There were horror tales told all around the villages about the cruel deeds they'd done on the day of the slaughter in Kurenitz. They grabbed little babies, and threw them into the fire. They tortured and slaughtered many people. I want to tell you about how we were almost caught by these two killers: One Saturday night in October of 1942, Shoal, son of Abraham Yitzhak Gordon, his wife, my wife and I, approached one of the farms. As usual, we stood near the window, but not facing it. We knocked on the window, but there was no answer. We knocked again, and still there was no answer. We were just about to leave, when we heard from afar someone walking. At first I thought it might be the homeowner, but I could just make out two young men walking in the night. Our eyes had become accustomed to the dark, like those of forest animals. They approached us and said in an almost polite tone, "Kurenitzki Zashidki. What are you looking for here in the middle of the night?" Shoal Gordon, who was encouraged by their friendly tone, answered, "We came to ask for bread for our families and children." They responded, "Come in, please, enter the house, we'll give you bread and other food for the soul". I recognized from the tone of their voices that these were the Karibi sons, the killers. I leapt out of the yard. I knew that a moment of hesitation would mean our death. As I escaped, I whistled like a Partisan to scare them. One of them was already holding my wife by her coat, but when she heard me whistle, she jumped too, and all he had left was her old coat, that ripped to shreds when she jumped away. Shoal also realized the danger, and ran out of the yard with his wife. The German collaborators were very afraid of the Partisans, and that explained why they didn't try very hard to chase and catch us. When we returned to Hob a week later, we were told by some sympathetic gentiles that, after we left, the Karibi sons looked for us in the homes of almost every villager and threatened everyone in the village, telling them that they would kill them like dogs if they aided or fed the Jews. We stopped going to Hob until one day, with the help of the Partisans, we burned the Karibis' home, and the entire family, fearing the Partisans, left the area. One day, the Partisans were told to leave the area for a different camp, much farther east, in the former USSR. When they left, they took a few young Kurenitzers in order to train them as Partisans. Our living situation was much more difficult after they left, but luckily for us, two weeks later a new unit came to our woods. They numbered four hundred, and we were extremely impressed by them. They had new weapons, and they arrived riding horses. The name of the troop was Revenge, and amongst them were Jews from Minsk, Dolhinov and Kurenitz. The Jews of Kurenitz included Yankel, the son of Orchik and Maryl Alperovitz. The year before, Yankel was taken to be killed with the fifty-four and saved himself and his brother when he demanded an answer from the Germans: Was he receiving a death sentence for being a Communist or a Jew? Also, when the war ended, he got many commendations and medals for his bravery. Others from Kurenitz were Nyomka Berman, the son of the barber, and Velvel (Zev), the son of Abraham Fiddler from Smorgon Street. The troop had just returned from a mission to save the Jews of Mydell, who the Germans held captive in a ghetto. They were successful in their mission, and they brought some of the Jews they had rescued to the forest. During the mission, however, the leader of the troop, who was known to be very heroic, and always walked in front of the troop in dangerous times, was killed in action. One of the families that was saved from the Mydell ghetto and brought to the woods was Yosef Blinder with his wife and children. Realizing that the snowy season was approaching, we feared that our footsteps would be noticed in the snow, and would lead the Germans to our camps. The Partisan headquarters decided to collect all the Jews from the forest and transfer them to Russian territory in the east, where the Russians still held some control. The Germans didn't dare enter those forests. We are Going to the Vostok Sometime around November, the Partisans collected all the Jews that were in the woods, some from Mydell, from Kribitz, Nieka, Kabilinik, and other places. All together, there were three hundred souls. Amongst them there were two hundred Jews from Kurenitz. Many were entire families that had been saved. The political commissar gave us a long speech, explaining that there was no choice but to leave and walk east. He drew a picture for us of all the difficulties we were going to encounter. We would be walking by foot, never using the main roads, only fields and forests, and never walking during the day. Despite the gloomy picture he drew, we were very excited. We all prepared for the journey. The main ingredient that we were told to collect was salt, since salt was unavailable in Russia. We were able to get it in small quantities from the villages, but it cost a lot of money. The commissar also told us to get laptzas, a kind of shoe made from cloth. Everyone's shoes at that point were totally destroyed from walking in the woods. We bought those and other clothes form the villagers, and everyone was busily preparing. We left on a Saturday. We were divided into units of ten people, each with a head leader. I was chosen as a head of a unit. They took everyone to the edge of the wood, where we waited for darkness. There were three Partisans guiding us. Amongst us were little children and people that could hardly walk from exhaustion, so the healthy people were supposed to take care of them. The three Partisans were wonderful. They helped us enormously. They wore leather jackets, blue pants and boots, and they were armed with the best weapons. They carried the children, and helped in any other way they could. When we reached five kilometers away from the train tracks, the Partisans entered the village Paskovishtsizana and confiscated three horses with buggies. They put the young children and the sick people on the buggies, which is how we reached the train tracks. Here we waited while the Partisans returned the horses and buggies to the village. Now it was time to cross the train tracks. Later, we crossed the main road between Kurenitz and Dolhinov. The road, which we called Yakterina's Boulevard, was famous and was bordered by old cedar trees on both sides. We were told to cross it near Kastsiniavits. This was the way the Partisans came and went, and it seemed like a safe way. The train tracks were at that time guarded in many spots by the villagers. We traveled until we were one hundred meters from the track, near Niyaka. There was complete silence. We all crawled on the ground, which was wet, but not frozen. We lay down and waited for orders. The Partisans whispered for us to cross immediately, in one big group. We crouched and quickly crossed the tracks. Our mission was to cover forty kilometers through the night, until we found a place to rest the next day. The area where we were nearing was very dangerous. We were close to Kanahahinina, where there was a large group of Germans in the train station. In addition, many Germans and police were stationed in Kastsinievitz. The mission was almost impossible. Three men were sent to check the area, amongst them Zalman, the son of Maisie Alperovitz, and two others that I don't remember. We lay down, awaiting their return. We waited and waited, but they didn't appear. The night was getting shorter and shorter. We didn't know what to do. We were waiting in a very dangerous spot. We realized that there was no reason to wait anymore. Later, we found out that they had returned and had taken fifty people, thinking that the rest would follow. But, there was a miscommunication, and we never knew that they had left. We knew we had to find a forest to hide in during the day. We did have the three Partisans, but still, we felt we were in incredible danger. We found a tiny forest, surrounded by open fields and isolated farms. Very close to it was the main road from Kasanivits and Kanihahinina. All day long, we saw cars full of armed Germans, crossing the road. We lay close to the ground, as if we were part of it, all day long until darkness came. When it was completely dark, we organized ourselves into units, and continued our journey. We had to cross thirty-five kilometers to get out of the danger zone and into a forest where the Partisans had control. Now we could see how difficult our mission was. The older people were exhausted, the children were tired and thirsty, all day we lay in one spot without drinking, and we had to walk five kilometers to reach the village Davidki. There began to be more and more space between the different units. We were carrying a lot of baggage, the children started crying, and the metal food containers in our baggage were making noise which, in the quiet of the night, could be heard from a great distance. The noise was getting louder and louder. But maybe that was our lucky break. The Failure In Davidki, there was a blockade in our anticipation. The Germans were going to kill us when we entered the village. But, when they heard the loud noises that was coming, they thought we were a huge Partisan troop, so they opened fire with everything they had and lit the area with flares much earlier than they originally planned. As soon as they started shooting, everyone ran with no guidance. We spread all over the area. Parents lost their children and men lost their wives. I tried very hard to control my group of ten. I ordered them to lie on the ground, and while still in lying position, to crawl and try to get away from the main road. The shots continued for about an hour with small breaks. At every break, we got further away from the main road until we reached a small forest that was more bushes than trees. The shots stopped. I counted my group and realized that, instead of ten, we were thirty five. We didn't know where the rest of the people were. So what should we do now? And where were we? From my estimation, we were still between Kastsinievits and Kanihahinina, at the mouth of the lion, with no real protection. Amongst the people with me were Natan Gurevitz and his children, Leah, Zalman and Gershon, the Vexler family, Rachel from the town of Kribits with her two children, Yoel and Michael the two children of Israel Shaefer, the daughter of Meir of Mydell, the wife of Chaim Zalman and her daughter, and women and children from Mydell. We decided to find a bigger forest. We walked all around. We knew that the Germans would look for us when daylight came, so we had to find a good hideout. All we could find were fields and bushes and thorny areas. We got more and more exhausted until we finally found a forest, where we lay down and fell asleep. In the morning we woke up hearing shots. The Germans were going through the main road looking for us. When we opened our eyes, we got very depressed. We were in a tiny forest in the middle of a field, and there were farms all around us. Not far there were shepherds with their flocks. It seemed clear to us that the Germans would find us shortly. We lay on the ground, observing the Germans who looked through the farms, but never approached the forest. It seemed that the rest of our group returned to our old place during the night with the help of one of the Partisans, and that the Germans followed their footsteps, so they were after them and not us, never imagining that we were lying so close to them. We lay like that all day. When evening came, we heard a lot of shots, we discussed what to do, how to get away, and return to the Pushtcha. We knew we were about twenty kilometers away from the Pushtcha, but we didnÕt know which direction to go. We decided to enter one of the farms and ask someone. This was a very dangerous mission since in that area, there were many Poles that were known as anti-Semites. Zalman Gurevitz and I endangered our lives and went to the village. When we reached the window of one of the houses, we heard whispers. The residents would not light their home fearing the Partisans. I pretended to be a Partisan, and asked in a rough tone where the main road was. From inside I heard the voice of an old woman. She claimed that she was all alone and too tired to greet us. We told her that all she needed to do was tell us which way to go. She reached the window and showed us here and there, and was all confused, so we saw that there was no help from her. We decided to try and find our own way. We found a little path, and took our people through the path. I knew that a path must somewhere join a main road so, after we walked for a short time, we found a main road. Still, we didn't know which way to go. Zalman Gurevitz and I found another farmhouse. Everyone waited in the bushes by the road. Lucky for us, there were no dogs to bark since the Partisans killed all the dogs. We reached a farm that looked like a wealthy farm. Since it had a big barn and storage areas, we knew it was a Polish home but despite this fact, I came to the window and knocked on it, asking in Russian, "How do I get to Kasetsinievits?" An old man came to the window. The young people were hiding, fearful that the Partisans might take them. He explained how to get there. We returned to our people, and started our journey. Clearly we didn't go to Kasetsinievits. We went in the other direction. The night was very long, and we walked about twenty kilometers. We were very thirsty. We hadn't drank in twenty-four hours. Near one of the villages we found a drainage system. We lay on the ground and put some water in the palms of our hands and rank it. We didnÕt go into the village. I recognized it. It was Zukavitsa, three kilometers from Niaka. From there on I knew the road. We approached the tracks. The villagers, as usual, were watching the tracks, but three hundred meters from there was a German patrol. Once in a while the German patrol came with flashlights and checked over the villager guards, who didn't have any weapons. We stopped near the tracks. Mikhail Vexler, Zalman Gurevitz and I checked the tracks and realized that there were no Germans. We gave a sign to the rest of the group and they all quickly passed across the tracks. It was around eleven at night. Now we could breath a little easier. We passed Nayeka, which seemed to be in total slumber, and then we reached the edge of the Pushtcha. We slept there. the next day we reached the area that we had left just a few days before. Our Bonfires and the First Snow The earth was already frozen, our clothes were torn, and the men were all ragged looking and unshaven. Fear of the approaching winter was enormous. Till now we'd lived next to the bonfires that burnt day and night. The bonfires had many advantages. The fire warmed our bones, we would bake potatoes, and boil our clothes. Each bonfire was a center for a few families. One family was incapable of taking care of the bonfire, since one needed many trees to keep it burning. There was no lack of trees in the forest, but it was impossible for us to cut them down. We didn't have the appropriate tools. It was also dangerous to hit the wood with the axe since it would make a loud sound that would echo in the woods. Even when we talked we whispered so that we wouldn't be heard. So we used wood that was already cut a few years back by the Soviets. They had put it at the edge of the woods prior to the Germans' invasion. We lived in the deepest of the woods, so we had to carry the firewood to our hiding place, a very difficult task. Only a big group of people could do it. For this reason, we had to live in bigger groups. The disadvantages of bonfires were that many of us got burned since the trees that we used were the kind that sent sparks flying out, in turn burning our clothes. It was especially dangerous while we slept. We lay on the ground in ring formation around the fire, foot to head. One person had to stay awake to watch for any fire that might get out of control. In our group, we had an organized guarding and since I needed very little sleep, I passed many nights watching the bonfire. We were so used to sleeping like this, with one person's head on another's legs, that we hardly felt the roughness of the earth. We lay at a distance from the fire where we could put our hand in and warm it. The side of our body that was near the fire was almost baked, but the other side suffered the cold. We knew that any minute the snow would start. We were extremely worried about it. Where would we hide in the snow? We knew we wouldn't be able to lie on the ground, and we knew that the bonfires would not last. But still, our worst fear was that the Germans could see our footsteps in the snow. The first snow came when I, my wife and a few other Jews from our group went to one of the villages to get food. It was very wet snow, pouring constantly, without pity or consideration. Our shoes were destroyed. We were left barefoot. When we saw that the snow was not stopping, we left the village and, with great difficulty, reached the Pushtcha. We were still about ten kilometers away from our hiding place, where the rest of the group was, but it was impossible to continue. We didn't know what to do. We started looking in our pockets to see whether someone had a match and a miracle occurred! Dania, the son of Chaim Avremil Alperovitz, had one match. So how were we going to light a bonfire with one match? The fear that the match would go out was huge. We knew we must prepare the wood to that the match would not fail. We started looking in the dark for dry brush, anything that the snow had not yet reached. We took any dry twig that we could find and broke pieces that were try, and prepared the bonfire. Who can describe the moment prior to lighting the match? It was a fateful moment. The match came alive and lit the wood. The fire took a long time, but finally it spread, one minute red one minute blue, from one twig to the other until, finally, we had a bonfire. We sat there for a long time warming ourselves and we rested. When we returned to our hideout, we found that our bonfires were almost all out and that the children were frozen. We spread out all over to find twigs and bushes for a new fire. We knew that the arrangements that we had for the last few months were not going to work, and we decided to make "zimlanka" (a deep in the ground hideout). We didn't have tools like shovels, and there were many children without parents and women without husbands that couldn't contribute to the job. We divided ourselves into groups, and started digging. Some families were unable to dig into the ground, so they made a hut out of foliage. Inside their huts they had constant fires. I remember that Yosef Blinder had a hut and one night the roof caught fire while the family was asleep, and they barely made it out. Yosef was gone, getting food in one of the villages at the time and when he came back, he found a burned hut and his family without a place to live. This new arrangement eventually caused the loss of a lot of lives since now we lived in a more permanent hideout, and there were paths that led to it which the Germans found. Life in the forest started affecting us. The cold, the anger, the filthy conditions all started killing our people. Israel Alperovitz, who kept to the Jewish rules till his last breath, only ate baked potatoes. On days when he couldn't get potatoes he just fasted and, finally, he died from starvation. The wife of Mendel Kramer died. The sons of Israel Shaefer, Yoelke and Michael, who were left without parents died. The daughter of Yerachmiel the shoemaker died, as well as some Jews from other towns. We didn't have funerals for the dead. We didn't sew appropriate clothing to bury them in. Only Israel, who had the talit that he kept like a treasure, was buried with his talit. We dug the ground with our bare hands, and there we put the bodies of people that we were so closely attached to now. The ones that survived, tried to improve the situation. Someone brought scissors and razors, which was like a treasure for the citizens of the woods. The owner of the "treasures" was moved from place to places, and treated with great respect. We used potatoes to soap our faces, and with great pain we shaved. Bigger problems were the ticks and lice. Our skin was full of bites. Eventually, typhus spread. The disease took the life of Yechiel, the son of Yekutiel Meir, the son of Faybush the Shochet, and many others. We used to joke about the typhus calling it the Crazy Typhus. Even if they got past the disease and fever, people were half crazy, and many lost their hearing. About the many that recovered without doctors and medicine, we used to say that the climate of the Pushtcha was a healing one. We had very little means of fighting the lice. Sometimes we would go to the villages and secretly use their bathhouse and steal wood to warm the water, but the smoke from the fire sometimes got in our eyes and we walked in pain for days. This practice caused the death of quite a few. People would fall asleep from the heat in the water, and sometimes they woke up the next day, falling into the hands of the Germans. The bathhouse was only a small room about two hundred meters from the farms. There was an oven with no chimney and on top of it were many rocks. There were two big barrels of water, one with cold water and the other warm. The practice was to put the water on top of the warm rocks, which gave us steam. At one time, a father with three sons, survivors from Svier, went to the village Stranika to use their bathhouse. After they took a bath, they fell asleep. When they woke up, it was already daylight. They left to return to the woods, not realizing that there were thousands of Germans in the village. This was on November 2nd, 1943, and they were preparing for the first blockade. When the family left they were all caught and shot. The three sons died immediately, and the father was wounded in his head, but survived and reached the Pushtcha in the next evening. Blockade That was the day of the first blockade. The Gestapo used spies in the neighboring village. They found our hideout and now they brought the Germans. The Germans surrounded the forest and started searching. Into every hideout that they found, they threw grenades; this continued from morning through the night. They took many lives. Our hideout was in a more isolated place and that probably helped. Altogether we were 32 people in our hideout. About 75% of the survivors who lived in the woods were centered in one location. They made something that looked almost like a settlement. From there were many trails you could see in the snow. I always told them that there were great dangers having a central community, that we must spread everywhere in the forest but people didn't listen. At 2am I returned from gathering food at a village about 15km away. I was exhausted, it was a very successful trip I got a lot of supplies and it was heavy to carry, my wife greeted me saying, "Now you can rest and not go to the villages for a while because you got so many supplies." I immediately went to sleep and in no time was in deep sleep. My little four-and-a-half-year-old daughter woke up very early in the morning and went outside to relieve herself. She immediately came running back very scared. She said, "Why are you all lying here? There are shots in the woods. The Germans are coming!" She woke up everyone and we quickly became ready. Someone said that it was her imagination and it was just the crackling of the forest from the frost. But it no time, we realized it wasn't her imagination. The forest became a battlefield. We could hear shots from every kind of weapon--rifles, machine guns, grenades, etc. The German used army tactics and army strategy to kill the small remains of the Jews of Kurenitz. In our hideout there were 14 people, and 200 meters away from us there was a group of 18 people. They immediately came to us and asked for advice--could we survive? By that point, we were all surrounded and we could hear the screams of the Germans. The screams echoed all throughout the woods. We had no time to think. A few suggested that we might be better off joining the other Jews, as if we could fight the Germans. I said quietly that in my opinion we should go in the direction that the Germans came from, meaning in the direction of Katilovetska. Thinking that the Germans would concentrate on the deep woods it would be smarter to escape through the edges. David, the son of Namancha, came running from the woods. The Germans shot at him; he threw his fur coat and boots as a decoy and the Germans shot them thinking that they had killed him. He ran barefoot. When it got dark, the shots quieted and the Germans left the woods. We returned to our hideout. The next day we left the hideout again thinking that they would continue with their blockade but they didn't return. So we left the forest to see what happened to the rest of the Jews. There were 9 Jews killed and 3 that were caught and tortured to death. Three of the hideouts were destroyed by grenades. Now we decided that we must build our hideout inside the ground. In case there was another blockade, we would not have to find another hideout in the forest. This was a complicated job since we didn't have the tools or the capability. In our group the main workers were Eliah, son of Shimshel Specter, and I. We built a hideout deep in the ground that was very hard to find. The hideout was connected to our living space and there was a tunnel from the hideout that was about 15 meters long. The end of the tunnel was in the middle of a thick part of the forest. In case they discovered the tunnel, we felt we could run out of it. Right after the first blockade, in March of 1943, Yetzkaleh "Yitzhak" Einbinder came to see us. He was a member in a partisan troop and was already involved in many dangerous missions. Although he was still a teenager, he appeared very serious, courageous, and melancholy as if he became an adult under tragic circumstances. He was wearing a short fur coat and boots and he had a Russian hat that the partisans used to wear. On his waist, he wore a rifle and a gun. He heard of the few Jews from Kurenitz who lived in our hideout so he came to see us. Here in the woods he found out that his parents and his entire family had been killed. When he saw us near the fire, he approached us and hugged and kissed each one of us crying. He sat somber on the ground as if he was eulogizing. Finally, he said, "There is only one thing left in my life. To revenge and to revenge." He sat with us for about two hours and then left alone. His name was renowned all over the forest. He took upon himself the most dangerous missions and his name was feared all over the villagers. They would call him Bezesmitnee, which meant the courageous, the one that death cannot take hold of. In the mean time, Passover came. It was our first Passover in the woods. I remember Feige lea Shmiraz and Migallee the wife of Shmirnah had a few metal containers and a broken pot so they washed their "treasures" to make them kosher for Passover. All through the Passover holiday we didn't eat bread--only potatoes. The second blockade came on April 30, 1943 four days after Passover. Just two days prior, the partisans came to Luban and killed some Germans. Among the partisans were Yankale, son of Archik Alperovich, and Zev, the son of Abraham Fiddler from Kurenitz. After they killed some Germans, they took a herd of cows and brought it to the woods. They gave one cow to each of two hideouts for slaughter. It was already Spring and mud was everywhere because the snow was melting and there was much rain. I and my brother and law and another of our group went to receive our cow. When we returned with the cow, the cow got stuck in the mud and it was impossible to get her out. While we were trying to get her out, all of a sudden we heard a few shots. We left the cow and ran to our hideout. The next day started the second blockade. In the second blockade, many survivors who didn't have hideouts were killed. Altogether, there were 19 people from Kurenitz and many others from other towns. One woman was caught and tortured to death at Vilejka. Danya, son of Abraham, was caught alive. They cut his body with a saw. Spring passed, and summer came. Night life was more comfortable. The hope that we would one day leave the woods and be saved- increased. In the fronts, the Germans kept losing. We heard that the Russians won the Stalingrad battle, but at the same time, more people among us died. Some were killed by Germans, and others by disease, particularly typhus. In September 1943, a few days prior to Rosh Hashanah, which was the first anniversary of the day they killed our town, the Germans went to the forest with a big army. Some were between 30-40,000 soldiers. Unlike the other blockades which lasted only a day, this blockade lasted for two weeks. Many of the villages that they suspected the residents for helping the partisans and the Jews were burned. The residents were taken to Germany. Fayga lea Sorrel's was caught by the Germans in one of the searches. She was brought to the village Sterenski where there was a German headquarters. They tortured her very severely and tried to make her admit that in the villages the Jews of the woods were getting food. The villagers watched her be tortured and were very scared. They knew that their lives were dependent on what she said. For three days they tortured her with everything, but she denied everything. She kept saying that the gentiles beat her mercilessly in the villages and they ran us out of their homes and everything that we have to eat is only from what we managed to steal from the fields or what the partisans give us. When they saw that the torture was not going to get them anywhere, the Germans started a new tactic by promising all sorts of things. They even tried to trick her by bringing her to a gentile who already confessed that he was giving food to the Jews of the woods. But she claimed right in front of the gentile that he was lying, that he was one of the cruelest villagers and that he caused many troubles to the Jews. A few days later, she died from torture. When the villagers heard that she died, they were unusually emotional. They couldn't understand how one woman had such spiritual powers to withstand that much torture. They claimed that she must be one of the holy saints that took a shape of a human being. They secretly took her body and buried it in the graveyard in Sterensky and they would go to her grave and pray as if she were a saint. The partisans left prior to the German entrance of the woods, so hardly any partisans were killed. Our situation improves. A large partisan brigade came to the woods and our situation improved greatly both financially and safety-wise. They established small workshops for sewing, shoemaking, baking, and other crafts. Many Jews started working for the partisan since most of the Jews were not trained to fight and could not join the other brigades. We joined the work troop. We dug in the ground for new hideouts that were now used as workshops. The Jews who joined the work troop were from different towns and many started coming after they escaped from Vilna. We didn't have any new materials so what we did was mainly fix old clothes and old shoes. Underwear we sewed from parachutes that the Russian Red Army had used to parachuted weapons down. The partisans brought the sewing machines from the villagers. As it turned out, most of those sewing machines had belonged at one time to the Jews of Kurenitz and were stolen after the Jews were killed. So we started dressing a little better with patches, but everything had no holes. Also, our cleansing situation improved dramatically. We made a bathhouse so we would no longer need to go secretly to the villages to bathe. Our bathhouse was made from an oven with rocks on top. We even managed to get some soap. We started producing soap too. Natcha chanas from Kurenitz established a soap factory that was very primitive but he managed to produce real soap. So now we were much cleaner and we looked almost like human beings. All the Jews eventually left the Pushtza and moved to the Zazarious wood near the community called Oozla. The reason was that, in that area Zoomitel there were big partisan troops and brigades. So this was our situation at the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944. Large areas were in that point in the hands of the partisans. In the woods, they even made a small secret airport. Planes landed and took the wounded from amongst the partisans to behind the line. Winter passed and Passover came. This Passover we baked matzos from our flour and we even made everything according to the rules and we had a seder. Immediately after Passover, there were rumors that the Germans were planning a big blockade in the woods so we started preparing and built many hideaways. On the one hand, we were seeing the end of the war, but on the other hand we were very worried that the Germans would kill us as the war was ending. We knew that in some areas the Germans started using dogs and they were able to find every hideout so our hearts were full of fear. The Germans started the blockade in forests that were about 180 km east of us. In this forest, there were many survivors from our town that were hiding there and we lost 15 souls out of them. What saved us was that the rapidly approaching Red Army had prevented the Germans from entering our forest. On June 29, 1944 the first Red Army scouts came to the edge of the woods. We waited for that day for 3 years, but few of us were able to see it. The day we returned. Only when we were finally free, we truly realized how alone we were. Where should we go? That was the question that we all asked. Our town was burned, the Germans totally destroyed it when they retreated. How could we come to that place? How could we look at the faces of the gentile residents of the town who had assisted in our destruction? But something was pulling us. We had to go to the graves of our beloved. We needed to lie there and put our heads in the earth and cry. So we returned to our broken homes. I will never forget the day we returned. When we approached the town, it looked like a war-zone. All around there was a barbed-wire fence and the town was full of tunnels and holes. There was no true battle there, but the tunnels were where the "Superior Race" had hid from the partisans. We entered Mydell Street and walked by the first house--Fiyashka's house. We walked crying, and with each step our hearts beat faster. These were moments where we didn't want to believe what occurred really occurred and that everything around us was taken from the land of the living. That we will never again meet anyone. Did everything really die? Could it be? Here in Mydell Street are we not going to see Leib Yakov, the glass-maker, with his smiley face and his shiny eyes? A little bit farther would my mother, father, brothers Yermiyau and Hillel, and my sisters Shaine and Myna come running as usual to greet us? And now we reached the huge cedar tree, our childhood playhouse. Will I not see the darling little Jewish kids of Sheveeshtzefole playing under his shade? I only had a few seconds of those memories, just a few seconds. Very soon, we reached the two huge holes at the end of Mydell street, the valley of the killingÉA burial for our beloved brothers and sisters. And here we stood on top of them on the day of victory- all depressed and broken. Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan.