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Amongst the Fifty Four

Yente Dinnerstein

It was the evening of Simhat Torha 1941. My husband Velvel and I took our baby boy to my sister-in-lawÕs home for a visit. A "visit" in spite of the fact that our hearts were filled with bitterness. My brother-in-law Sina and my sister-in-law Sarah received us with graciousness . We sat and discussed various subjects and blessed every minute that did not bring pain and misery. Being worried had become a second nature to us, so my brother-in-law went outside to see if all was quiet in the neighborhood.

He walked to the far edge of his backyard where he could see the central market. While he was observing the market he saw that from Vilejka Street came a parade of bicyclists and passed rapidly through Dolhinov street. He found a hiding place and stood there motionless observing the "parade". Soon he realized that they were the German Es de. The entire "parade" stopped next to the house of Asna Limon, which was now the police headquarters. They got off their bicycles and entered. Ten minutes later they left, the same way they had come. My brother-in-law returned home and with great fear in his voice told us what he saw. Immediately, I covered the baby and we left for my parents home. We walked through the gardens as it was safer and as soon as we entered our home I told my father of what we had seen.

My father felt that since they returned to Vilejka, it was not so worrisome. In any case, we sat by the window so that we could observe the street. After a short time we saw a bicyclist approaching. It was Adamovich, the postman. He came to our yard and hastily approached the window, and clicked on the glass with a little stick. Father opened the window and whispered "What is happening?" but Adamovich didnÕt give him time to finish the sentence. He told him; "Mr. Dinnerstien, all men must leave at once. The women can sleep in peace." He looked around to make sure no one saw him talking to us and immediately parted. There was dead silence In the house. We looked at each other in great fear. Finally father said "Velvel, I will leave right away and after 5 minutes you should leave. WeÕll go to sleep at Yvonne GusarÕs house in Nuvokurenitz. WeÕll go through the fruit garden of the Ofvisht. And IŌll wait for you next to the Christian bathhouse."

Father said goodbye, and, with him, took a pail as if he were going to the well, so as not to create panic amongst the neighbors. He put the pail next to the well and went to the bathhouse. He waited thirty minutes but Velvel didnÕt show up. Worried that something was amiss, he returned. Velvel was determined to stay at home. He explained to us that he had done nothing wrong, so he didnÕt expect anything bad to happen to him. There was no convincing him that he must escape, so both men ended up at home.

Dusk came. Jews were not allowed to light their homes, so we covered the windows with a blanket and put on a little light. We discussed what we should do. Mother served dinner but we couldnÕt eat. At 11 oÕclock we went to sleep after telling each other that Adamovich didnÕt know what he was talking about. By midnight we were all in deep sleep but our sleep lasted for one hour only. All of a sudden we heard loud knocks on the door and just the sound of the rude knocks was sufficient to be an omen for us that disaster was approaching. We tried to ignore the knocks but they got louder and louder someone was knocking both on the doors and windows. Shaking with fear we jumped out of our beds and got dressed. Suddenly we heard a loud noise. Someone had hit the door with a rifle and with a loud shriek said, "Open the door!" Mother was the first one at the door, she asked with most na•ve sounding expression, as if wondering who it could be, "Who is there?" The killers screamed "Open the door!" and cursed us. Mother opened the door as if they were common visitors, and tried to appear peaceful in spite of her terror. Three policemen entered the home and some others waited in the hallway. Still others were surrounding the house standing in our yard. The policemen who entered were our gentile friends from school. As soon as they walked in they approached the bedroom. When they saw Velvel, they demanded that he get dressed and go with them.

We all started crying. My sister Rachel approached one of the policemen, her classmate for many years, and begged, "Gintop, leave him alone. He didnÕt do anything wrong to you. We were friends in the same classroom." The killer pushed her away and screamed "Get away you bloody Jew! We never were and never will be friends." His blood was boiling as he screamed, "Get dressed! You have 5 minutes." The two other policeman walked around the house with Amused look, they laughed at our embarrassed faces. I was paralyzed. I couldnÕt get out of bed. It lasted about two to three minutes. Then I recovered and jumped out of bed as if awoken from a nightmare, and walk rapidly all over the room collecting underwear, socks, gloves, sweaters, shawls and hats. In a short time I made a little package for Velvel. Mother also put together a package with food for the way. At the last minute I gave him extra underwear. One of the policemen said that its all unnecessary . They would only take him to work he promised that Velvel will return. We all sensed a great disaster was coming. I was the first person who Velvel said goodbye to. I was shocked from his many kisses and whispering voice. "Take care of the baby and yourself. TheyÕre probably only taking me to a labor camp." My tears gave him immense pain and he calmed me down saying, "DonÕt worry, IÕll be warm. IÕll take this now, but IÕll probably return soon. But just in case I don't, find out where I am and send something." The policeman yelled at us. "No time to make love now. Tomorrow you will make love." Velvel couldnÕt stop saying goodbye. He said goodbye to mother, father, Rachel, the baby and me. After he made his first step towards the door, he turned back and looked at us again. His face was pale and scared . He stood there for a minute with an embarrassed look until the policemen pushed him out of the entrance. Now the cries got louder. We hurried to window to see him, but we could only hear their foot steps. Then they all disappeared. There was total silence now. At that minute the baby started crying it was a horribly loud cry and our hearts were braking.

The whole night we couldnÕt rest. Morning came and outside we saw people walking. Mother quickly got dressed and went to the police station that was situated in the market to see what was happening. She entered, went to head of the police and told him that at night, her son-in-law was taken, and that she didnÕt know why. She asked if it was possible to send him food. Isiavich, the chief of police, answered, "At this point thatÕs not allowed, but maybe later, after weÕve checked his papers." Mother returned to tell me about it, and then walked back to the police to try to get Velvel released. I stayed home with the baby, who was then six months. Father went to the streets for advice. When he returned I noticed that he looked tired and hopeless, even though he tried to hide his feelings from me. He sat on the sofa and sighed quietly. I put the baby in the cradle and rocked him, not paying attention. Father was now crying. I was confused. My heart was shaking, but before I could ask him if he had found out anything I saw from the window a group of Germans approaching from the direction of the market. They walked in the middle of the street, crowding it. There were ten men . I was extremely scared and I yelled to Father, "Look! The Germans are coming! I think theyÕre coming here!" I stood paralyzed, staring out of the window. They came closer and closer. It was clear to me they were coming to our house. I screamed, "Father run away! They are coming to our house."

Father got up and looked out of the window. The killers were walking confidently, with an air of contentment. Again I yelled, "Father run away!" TheyÕre probably coming to take men. You must leave immediately! Leave through the back of the apartment from the window to the garden of Chvayder then to the house of one of your Christian friends.

Father didnÕt move. His face turned yellow and he started weeping, "How can I leave you, my daughter, without protection?" I saw that the gang already reached Hinda-LeirÕs house. With full force, I pushed Father and screamed, "Why are you standing? Quickly, run away!" I donÕt know where I got the energy to push him so forcefully. When father reached the door he stopped and looked at me. I couldnÕt speak anymore . I saw the soldiers reaching our house. I signaled him to run away and continued rocking the baby very nervously. As soon as Father had left, the gang stepped up to the doorway and entered. A tall officer with glasses approached me and asked, "Is this the house of Rodinsky?"

"No," I answered."

"Are you the wife of Rodinsky?"

"Yes," I replied.

He motioned to the rest, and they split up to search the rooms. In five minutes everything was taken out of our cabinets and drawers and thrown on the floor. I stood there surrounded by the soldiers without any protection and had no idea what was going to happen. The commander entered and whispered something to the officer in charge. Then one of the soldiers was ordered to stay. He saluted and kicked his boots together sharply. The other nine killers left the house on their way to a house at the end of street, belonging to Chaim Zukofski. The soldier that stayed with me stood rigidly at attention for a very long time, he was looking at the baby. I gave him a chair and asked him to sit. He just shook is head in refusal. There was total silence. I saw him look at the baby again. I took a chance and asked timidly, "Pardon me, maybe you know if the father of the baby will return." Again there was no answer. The soldier only shrugged as if he had been asked a difficult question that couldnÕt be answered. The soldier approached the cradle, looked at baby and sighed. I looked at his expression, trying to comprehend his thoughts. I was overcome with fear. I was all alone with him. Still, I was happy that Father had left in time. While I was thinking about it the soldier finally spoke, "Maybe you can give me some wool gloves, a scarf and socks." I was happy that he had finally talked. I told him, "Mother will return soon and she will give you everything." Sure enough she soon came. But he didnÕt let her move.

After thirty minutes the Germans returned to the house. The lieutenant asked me for my papers. I gave them to him immediately and then the assistant chief of police entered and explained, in broken German, that in this house lives the Dinerstien family and that the apartment of the Rodinsky family was located in the market area. The officer ordered me to take my baby and go to the market. I was sure that he was planning to take me to the apartment, but I was gravely mistaken. I asked mother for diapers for the walk. I left the house certain that they were going to search our house, and then we would be allowed to return to my parents home. Mother said, "My daughter!" and asked me for a kiss. I calmed her down by saying, "The apartment is empty- it has already been robbed by the villagers.

Outside I started comprehending that something tragic was occurring. Right next to our house stood Pesya Yenta, the mother of Chaim Zukovski, my sisterŠin-law Hinda, and Mulka TeybesÕs wife with her two children. I whispered, "WhatÕs going on?" They said that the situation was awful. We walked very slowly. The gentiles looked at us and whispered. We reached the market and were told by other Jews that the calamity is terrible. But I still didnÕt know what was going to happen. All the women were weeping and holding their children tightly. I was unable to cry anymore. My heart had become a rock. The other women told me that they saw the men were taken holding shovels. I tried to analyze the situation and decided that the men were being transferred to a labor camp and we were going to say goodbye to them. I was sorry that I hadnÕt brought food for the baby.

Ten minutes later the police ordered us to walk to Kosita Street now we were surrounded by many policemen and soldiers. We were ordered to go in the middle of the street in one tight and crowded group. I started slowing down and was the very last of the walkers. In a hushed voice, I asked the soldier who earlier had been commanded to watch me at the house who now was walking right behind me if he would let me slip away and disappear into one of the nearby yards. He answered that he could be severely punished for this.

We reached the train tracks. I looked back and saw Kurenets. It looked distant, small and tucked away tightly in the valley. I could see the three synagogues standing next to each other. I thought how even they couldnÕt help our poor souls. "Will I ever see you again, my dear town?" This was the thought that rang in my mind. Strangely, I was feeling very sad, but not scared. I was pushing away any thought of the awful disaster that was probably waiting for us. Friedka, the daughter of David Lipas, was crying desperately. She asked me, "Yentedske, where are they taking us? and where did they take the menÉour dear husbands?" I walked right by her, but when I wanted to answer I realized that my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth! I felt as if a rock was stocked in my throat, A rock that I wouldn't budge. My lips had no ability to talk, no energy to move. I understood everything that was going on around me, but just couldnÕt talk. The policeman hurried us up by hitting us with the butt of his rifle.

We reached the Ricolan Forest. At the edge of the forest, we were ordered to stop and to stand inside a trench. All of a sudden we realized that Inside the forest there was a clearing and there we could see our husbands holding shovels in their hands. We saw they were barefoot and wearing only their underwear. Their clothes were piled on the side of the clearing and their shoes and boots arranged perfectly in pairs. At that moment I realized that the two holes that our husbands were digging must be in fact two graves, one for themselves and one for us!

We stood at the edge of the forest until the digging had ended. Then the soldiers ordered us to approach the trenches and stand about fifty meters from our beloved husbands. We were ordered to look straight at them. The soldiers arranged our husbands in one line with their backs to us. The killers kept running back and forth, straightening the lines. Behind each person stood a policeman with a rifle and in front of the policemen stood a German with a machine gun pointed at the lines of people. Suddenly we heard the sound of a whistle. Then the sound of rifles and machine gun fire filled the forest. At that moment a huge wind blew through the trees and everything started shaking. Our dear husbands, the fathers of our children, fell like broken trees. The horrified cries of women and children tore the forest to pieces. We pulled out our hair and screamed to the heavens to look down upon us in order to witness the great tragedy that had befallen us. But the wind only carried our screams through the forest. The terrible sound echoed through the woods, but never reached heaven. A few minutes passed and the gentiles that stood in the surrounding area covered our dear ones with earth. The soldiers made us stand in a line to take us to the killing place. At the edge of the woods stood a gentile with a horse and buggy ready to take our clothes. I approached him and said, "Take the baby so he will live." The man started laughing, and scoffed, "Ha, ha, ha, a Jewish baby! That garbage has to be burned so that no memory will be left of you." I stood embarrassed, almost forgetting that there lay only thirty meters between me and death. The whistle again shivered through the woods. The policemen put us in one line, the women and children, and me too. The officer order us to take off our clothes and pile them in one place. I placed the baby diaper on the heap of clothes and said, "A sacrifice for you, my baby." I placed the other diaper on the heap and whispered, "A sacrifice for me."

I held my baby tightly, pressing him against me with my fingers, digging into his chest. I hoped that when we died we would fall together so when they found us they would recognize us and know to bury us in the same grave, since I was the only mother with a small baby. The killers were busy straightening the line. I looked at the sky and asked God for a miracle. I looked back and saw the killers with their rifles pointed at us. I closed my eyes and acknowledged to myself that all hope was lost. At that moment, when I was sure that there was no hope left a miracle occurred! As if God hadnÕt left me. He had sent a messenger to spare me from death. The officers were ready to shoot and the senior officer was just about to give the sign, when a policeman came running towards him. The policeman caught the hand of the officer who was holding the whistle before he could give the signal to shoot. The policeman pointed at me and my baby and asked that we be released. The officer pushed the policeman angrily and said that the baby would grow up to be a famous Communist. When the policeman saw that the officer had the whistle in his mouth and was again about to give the signal to the soldiers to shoot, he started hastily explaining. The policeman pleaded with the officer, explaining that he knew me well, that I was a good women and that I wasnÕt a Communist. The officer gave up and let me leave the line.

I didnÕt see all this. I was told about it later.

The policeman approached me with another man, a Russian POW that stayed in town. They patted my back, congratulating me, "Yente, you are released. Get out of line." I turned my face and saw Minka from Delhinough St., the son-in-law of Resiva . The other man was not familiar to me. Minka said, "Go home quickly. IÕll tell you how you were saved later." I couldnÕt move. I was totally confused. Afraid of myself, my whole body shook with cries and I held my baby to my heart. The officer came to "sympathize" with me. "DonÕt cry," said the bloody killer. "I now release you, but in the future donÕt marry a Communist." I lifted my eyes. He stood smiling. He looked tall and sure of himself. He dismissed me with a shake of his hand and told me to go. Again I stared crying but this time, I was able to walk. He shouted for me to come back. I looked back, fearing that they wanted me to return to the line but the officer pointed to the pile of clothes and said, "Take your clothes." With his cane he spread the contents of the pile of clothes and said, "You can take clothes that donÕt belong to you too," and laughed. I found my coat and took it hastily. As I left I heard him say, "Talk to me," and my blood froze. He offered me a seat with him and suggested that I wait until he was done with his job and promised that then he will take me back to my village. I ran off; I heard the officer give his sign; then I heard the shots.

My heart failed and my knees buckled. I couldnÕt move a step. I could hear the shots reverberating through the forest as the top of the trees shook. I knew that in no time IÕd have fallen to the ground. With the last of my strength I held onto my baby and was able to reach the edge of the forest. I saw a farmer and asked him for help. I placed my baby on the hay in his wheelbarrow and put on my coat. The man said, "You are a lucky one." I didnÕt answer him. I put my baby under the coat and continued walking. The wind almost knocked me down. Three policeman who left after me, were now ahead of me. One of them looked at me and said, "You are a lucky one." They left singing. My legs seemed to move but I was standing still.

Finally I reached the house of the train watchman. Manka, the daugter of Bougdian, ran to me from the house and took the baby, who was half unconscious. She brought me inside the house where they had some food on the stove. She tried to give me something to eat. I begged her to just let my mother know I was alive. She sent her little sister, and then I took my baby and left. I walked to Cositta St. There was not a living soul in the street. Fearful, I looked in the yards, but there was a deadly quiet all around. Near the house of the Neshka Copels, Avraham Meir Kaygan came to me greatly agitated, and cried, "God! Oh God! How did you get here? How is it that youÕre walking all alone in the street? How did you get away from the murderers?" He showed me where to walk so as not to get caught again.

I stumbled through in the alleys and when I reached the house of the Zushibebes I saw my mother from afar, running toward me with open arms. We ran hastily towards each other, and when we were just few steps away, we fell into each others arms, fainting. From one of the houses someone came and took the baby and I was taken to house of Smallshaness. When I came to and opened my eyes, I saw my two sisters-in- law: Sarah and Hannah. They asked me where Velvel was. I could not tell them, so I replied that I had returned in the middle of the march to the forest. I went to my parentÕs home, but I was incredibly restless. I felt like I was going to lose my mind.

At dusk, Viera, the daughter of the obieshtzik, came to the house and whispered to me, "My heart is with you Yente, in your tragedy. I know that in this house you wonÕt find peace. Come to my house for a few days until you feel a little better. When it got dark I went to her house. She took me to a dark room that was lit only by a little furnace. Now I was separated from my mother and I didnÕt know what had been the fate of my father. I cried quietly until I was drenched with tears. I whispered my thoughts to Velvel. I felt as if he was standing there listening. All sudden I heard footsteps, soft and careful. The door opened and Viera came in and told me that my father came, and wanted to see me. She asked me to keep our voices hushed during our meeting so that no one could hear us. Father entered the room. I clung to him like I was still a very little girl. He hugged me to his heart and cried and whispered, "My little girlÉmy little child." He stroked my hair, kissed my eyes, and held me in his arms for long hours. We sat at the edge of the bed. Father took the baby, held him and cried. For a long time we sat crying, not wanting to separate. Then Viera came and said it was very dangerous and that father must not leave the yard too late at night.

Father said goodbye and left. The first night after the tragedy and I was lying there feeling as if I am lying at the edge of a great, steep cliff. The horrors that I encountered during the day were too heavy to carry and every moment I was worried that I was going to lose my mind.