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Don't Go Gentle
Chapters From Charles Gelman's Book (Yechezkel Zimmerman)
July 1941. We were huddling in the backyard of our neighbor, Mote-Leyb Kopershtooch, sitting on the ground, our backs against the wall, and talking in whispers. The German army had arrived in town barely one week earlier. No specific orders or edicts against Jews had been proclaimed at this point. Yet the air was more and more permeated with fear each passing day. Even on bright days it felt as if a heavy cloud had descended on us.
Mote-Leyb's house stood next to my father's. I reached his yard by going through a hole in the back fence, as did a couple of neighbors from the other side of Mote-Leyb's house. We met there daily just to stay out of the way of the police and the Germans, to exchange the latest rumors, and to kill time. Our former routine of living had been broken, most likely forever.
That day, Leybke the barber was there and so was my friend, Nyomke Shulman. Leybke regretted not having escaped with the retreating Russians while there was still time. Not that he hadn't tried. In fact, he told us, he had made a half-hearted effort to go east. He acquired a horse and buggy, a real fancy one, a brichke they used to call it, and he put his wife and two children in it and drove off. They got as far as Kostenevich, a small town about seventeen kilometers from our town of Kurenits (sometimes pronounced, but never written, Kśrnits; in Polish KurzŽniec, in Russian KurenŽts). Leybke's wife kept begging him to return home, where things were familiar and safe. She couldn't take the hardship and uncertainty of what lay ahead along the way--air raids, hunger, trouble with bandits, just to mention a few. So they turned back. Leybke concluded his story by saying he could see he'd made a mistake in giving up so easily; he should have pressed on.
I couldn't help but agree with him--in though only, of course. Leybke was more vulnerable than most of us because of the high standing he had had with the Soviet authorities. Being a barber and a real proletarian, his background was, from the Soviet political view, impeccable. We lived in the eastern part of Poland. When the Soviets occupied it on September 17, 1939, they promptly divided the population into politically "acceptable" and "unacceptable" segments. Anyone who didn't have his passport stamped with the designation "worker" or "peasant" could eventually expect trouble from the authorities. Because a large segment of the shtetl (small town) Jews made their living before 1939 buying and selling, they had been designated "businessmen." Many were just peddlers and small merchants; they earned barely enough to keep body and soul together. Nevertheless, they received the negative designation. It didn't bode well for the future.
The Soviet authorities were helped along in these and other matters by local activists who cooperated with them, often to the detriment of others--Jews as well as non-Jews--and informed on them as to their wealth, political reliability, and so forth. Some people were taxed into poverty, deprived of their houses, furniture, and all material goods. Some were even sent to Siberia as a result of the activities of these informers.
Leybke was considered an activist, although of a different kind. So far as I know, he was not an informer, but he had high-placed friends in the local hierarchy. I know for a fact that he had saved the life of my brother-in-law, Sam Spektor. Sam had been inducted into a work brigade about three months before the Germans invaded Russia on June 22, 1941. Leybke convinced the authorities that Sam was the only person capable of organizing and training a city orchestra, which the Soviets very much desired. So Sam was left behind. The Soviets mobilized quite a few men from our town of Kurenits and sent them to the German border to build fortifications. None of them ever returned and they were never heard form again.
Most of these activists had retreated along with the Soviets, well ahead of the approaching Germans, because they feared retribution from the non-Jewish population who were anti-Soviet. Some fled with their families. Others left wives and children behind, mistakenly believing that only they themselves were in danger. Many of those who fled survived the war. Of the families that activists left behind, none survived. During the first few weeks of the German occupation, such an outcome could not be foreseen. Had anybody described such a scenario as eventually coming to pass, we would have considered them deranged.
Rumors abounded: "The Russians are counterattacking." "They've taken back this or that city." "The Germans have taken Smolensk (a Russian city on the way to Moscow)." "The war can't last more than a month longer." Few of them were true. Confusion was the order of the day; for real news we were utterly in the dark. Listening to radio broadcasts was forbidden under penalty of death. News from the front was unavailable. What we did hear was mostly sketchy and unreliable.
The, only a few days later, Leybke told us he had been summoned to the police station; he had been informed he must appear there the following day, ready to be shipped out to an unknown destination. He would be allowed to take with him only five pounds of food and clothing.
We were sitting in our usual place and discussing this latest development. Leybke said he though the Germans would send him to a labor camp. He wasn't worried about himself, because he thought he could always survive if they allowed him to take his barbering tools with him. "Even in a labor camp, hair must be cut," he said. He was confident that he would make out all right.
Thoughts like that seemed quite plausible at that time. We had not heard of any German atrocities yet, except for two instances, which the Jewish population interpreted as unfortunate accidents.
Between the time the Russians fled Kurenits and the time the German army arrived, the town was without any real authority. It was decided to organize a sort of civil guard; gentiles and a few young Jewish men participated in order to guard against looting. The men were armed with rifles left by the Russian police and even used the local police station. Unwisely, this action continued several days after the Germans entered. Early one morning two young Jewish men, coming off duty and walking back to the police station, were confronted by German soldiers, who discovered they were Jews and arrested them. No explanation was acceptable and the young men were promptly shot. They were cousins and both had the same name--Shimon Zimmerman. One was also known as Shimon dem fishers.
The other incident involved two prominent men from Kurenits, both of them merchants and quite rich by our standards. They suffered greatly under the Soviets, who confiscated their businesses and all their merchandise and taxed them so severely--hundred of thousands of rubles--that they lost their houses and savings and fled to another town about thirty-five kilometers away. A good thing they did, too. If they hadn't, they might well have been sent to Siberia. A couple of weeks into the German occupation these merchants started to walk back to Kurenits to try to reclaim the houses that had been theirs. They were intercepted on the road by Germans, recognized as Jews, and promptly shot.
These incidents, unfortunate as they were, were in no way recognized as a harbinger of things to come.
Leybke reported to the police station as directed and was never seen or heard from again. He was probably shot somewhere out of town. Yet such a fate, at that time, was incomprehensible because it was unbelievable. After all, the Germans are civilized people, we though. They might weed out the communists, but surely they would investigate with at least some semblance of orderly procedure.
Were we all na•ve? With the benefit of hindsight, I can say we certainly were. The truth is that up to that time we had not yet heard of any real atrocities.
Throughout the period of Russian administration there were Jews living in our town, as well as in surrounding towns, who had come from the western part of Poland, occupied by the Germans in September 1939. These Jews had managed to come to eastern Poland, even after living several months under the Germans. The stories they told were not pleasant. Jews in German-occupied territory had to wear a yellow star of David on their clothes. At times they were mistreated and demeaned, for example, by being made to wash public latrines and streets. Jews had no right to use the sidewalks; they had to walk in the middle of the street. Religious Jews in the street often had their beards cut by force, or grabbed and a handful of hair pulled out. Sometimes a German officer would order an individual Jew, or a group, to dance for him and then proceed to mercilessly beat up those who hadn't jumped high enough or who had otherwise failed to perform to his liking. There were other stories like these of Jews being humiliated and brutalized. Nonetheless, we heard nothing, not even rumors, of outright shootings.
When the Russians offered these displaced persons a chance to return to their former homes in western Poland, a large number of them said yes and signed up to be transported back to the German part of Poland, something they would not have done, we believed, had they thought conditions there to be unacceptable. Of course the Russians never intended to keep their offer; instead, they shipped these transportees east to Siberia. In so doing the Russians unintentionally saved the lives of thousands of Jews. Some died on the way from the primitive conditions of transport, which could last for several months on each leg of the journey. Others perished from the harsh conditions in remote parts of Russia. A majority, though, survived and surfaced in the West after the war.
Even much later--after fifty-four of our Kurenits Jews had been shot outside of town on the Simchas Torah holiday of 1941, after thirty-two more had been shot by two policemen in March of 1942, after news reached us of Jews being massacred in surrounding towns--people would still come up with explanations, no matter how feeble, to give the events some justification. For instance, in one town they said the Germans supposedly found a gun. In another they said the Jews hadn't filled their assigned quotas of money, furs, or other goods. In the case of fifty-four, as these martyrs became known, the excuse was that they had been Russian activists, or families of activists, left behind. People excused the massacre of thirty-two by saying the Germans had no direct role in it: the hapless Jews were shot by two drunken Polish policemen.
People desperately looked for excuses in order to continue believing that somehow they would survive. Married people with young children were especially prone to this syndrome, as were older people. A case of drowning men grasping for straws. The real truth of things did not crystallize and hit home for some time. In 1941, especially during the summer, we were still innocents.
After Leybke disappeared, I continued to get together with a few friends in Mote-Leyb's backyard. The news and rumors that filtered through to us were getting more and more grim every day. It was becoming clearer that the Russians were being defeated on every front and that the Germans were capturing major cities deep inside Russia--all in a matter of only a few weeks. It was discouraging.
In this connection, I especially remember the feldsher of our town, a man by the name of Szostakowicz. (Feldsher is a Russian medical title, roughly equivalent to "physician's assistant", given to a person with medical experience and the authority to treat patients, but without a regular medical degree.) One morning I met him as he was walking in the town square, holding in his hand a German grenade, the type with a long wooden handle. It had obviously been given to him by one of his high-ranking German officer friends. He was just toying with it and intended no harm. (Later on, when I was a member of the partisan underground, I had occasion to use grenades like these on the Germans, with their intended purpose.) As we met, he stopped and talked to me for a moment or two before continuing on his way. What I remember most is what he said just before he went on. "You mark my words. This German Reich will last for a thousand years." He was, of course, parroting words from a recent speech of Hitler's, but to me he conveyed the message that he completely believed what he was repeating. The, having said his piece, he strutted away like a peacock, proud of the achievements of his newfound German friends. You can imagine what this chance meeting did to my already sagging spirits. The future looked bright to him, but to usÉWe were on the opposite ends of a seesaw; the higher he rose, the lower we sank.
How different things had been only a month earlier. There was no war here then and, with the tight control which the Soviets exercised over news sources, we had absolutely no inkling that war between the Russians and the Germans was in the offing. (The outbreak of war came as a surprise to the Soviets, too.) Under the Russians, we Jews felt for the first time--aside form the lack of freedom and the shortages of food and material things that affected everybody--that we were full-fledged citizens, with anti-Semitism prohibited under severe penalty of the law.
I was not quite eighteen then and lived at home with my parents, Yitskhok Zimerman (Iche Khatsyes), my father, and Feyge, my mother. I was the youngest of the five children. My oldest sister, Sarah, was married and lived in the town of Volozin. My youngest sister, Dina, about four years older than I, was also married and lived deep inside Russia, out of reach of the Germans. Also living at home were my two middle sisters, Ethel and Minya. Minya was in the last stages of pregnancy. Her husband, Sam Spektor, had received permission to visit his brother in the city of Kharkov in Russia two weeks before the war started. When war broke out, he couldn't get back. He remained deep inside Russia throughout the war and survived.
Our future looked bleak now. What would become of us? Minya was ready to give birth almost any day. How would she cope with a baby in times like these, and without a husband? There were many questions and no good answers.
One day an official order of the German commandant was posted in the public square. In both German and Polish it ordered all Jewish males between the ages of fourteen and sixty-five to assemble in the public square at two in the afternoon the next day. Failure to comply, it stated, was punishable by death.
No one knew the reason for this order, though many tried to guess. "Maybe they'll make us wash the cobble-stones in the marketplace," some said. "Maybe they'll amuse themselves by making us dance for them," others suggested. Many other explanations like these were offered, which is to say, no one expected the worst. Yet failure to appear at the ordered time and place would probably be unwise because the Germans might check the people present against a list of town residents.
As it happened nothing much really did occur. About eight hundred men showed up at the appointed hour and were made to stand in the hot summer sun, facing the German Kommandantur (commandant's office and garrison headquarters). After about an hour had passed, German soldiers with machine guns came out of the building and took up positions facing us. They remained in that attitude for about another hour. This was the low point of the day. The Germans, with their machine guns, certainly looked menacing enough and I had second thoughts about the wisdom of having showed up. Then, after we had been standing there for more than two hours, the German commandant finally came out. He was a man about fifty years old and held the rank of major. He told us not to worry. He wished to have a Judenrat (council of Jews) appointed. Then and there he selected an Austria Jew, a man by the name of Schatz, to be the Judenrat leader. And then he dismissed the entire group and told us to return to our homes. Except for a few cases of sunburn and of one person fainting from the heat, nothing bad had happened to anyone.
We didn't appreciate how lucky we were until a month or so later when we found out that in the town of Vileyka, only seven kilometers away, all the Jewish male population from fourteen to sixty-five years of age had also been ordered to assemble before their local commandant, at approximately the same time we were before ours. But all of them--about two thousand men--were taken away and vanished without a trace. This was followed by all kinds of rumors as to their whereabouts. Some peasant had seen them in a labor camp thirty kilometers away. Or they might be in another labor camp eighty kilometers away. Needless to say, all these reports were false. The men had in fact been shot the same day they were taken away. Their place of execution was not discovered until after the war.
Obviously, then, local commandants had discretionary power to determine the fate of the Jews within their jurisdiction. We were lucky to have gotten a commandant with a human heart. He would prove this again a little later in an incident involving my family.
The Judenrat was organized the day after the assembly in the Kurenits public square and consisted of eight to ten Jews, with Schatz as leader. It served as the instrument through which the Germans conveyed all their orders and wishes to the Jewish population. For example, a certain number of Jews were required to go and work at Lubanye, a state-run farm not far away. Other Jews were detailed to clean the offices of the German administration, the police, the civil administration, and so on. Money, furs, jewels, Persian rugs, and paintings were to expropriated from the Jewish population. All these orders were given to the Judenrat, which then apportioned them among the Jewish population. This was not always done fairly.
Towards the end of July, I was among the 150 Jewish young people between the ages of seventeen and thirty sent up to the state farm of Lubanye for three days of work in the fields. After the three days were up, we were relieved by another group of the same size. Each of us had to go work there about once every two weeks. The rest of the time we worked in or around town. Lubanye was about six kilometers away, but no transportation was provided; we had to walk there and back. Each of us brought our own food for three days with us. I remember bringing along only a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk. Food was getting scarce and little could be spared. So we supplemented the food we brought from home with cabbage and carrots from the gardens we tended. Of course we weren't entitled to do this, so we took the vegetables on the sly. Carrots posed no problem; nothing obvious was left after you pulled one or two out of the ground. All you had to do was dispose of the inedible green leafy part. Cabbages were a problem, though, because if you removed the whole head, it left an empty space that could easily be spotted. Getting caught could conceivably mean punishment by beatings or maybe worse, so I used to eat only the inside of a cabbage head, carefully leaving the outside leaves in place. Unless the plant was scrupulously examined, no one could tell that it had been tampered with. At any rate, I was never caught, and I don't recall anyone else was either.
I particularly remember one out of many jobs I had to perform in or around our town of Kurenits. During the months of August, September, and part of October 1941, the Germans operated a Durchgangslager (transit camp) in Kurenits--a temporary way station for Russian prisoners of war. Thousands of them were marched in on foot from the eastern front and kept in Kurenits for two or three days of rest before being driven further west. They were kept out in the open at the horse market, where, prior to the war, horse trading had taken place.
Day and night, fair weather and foul, the prisoners remained exposed to the elements. When it rained, they got soaked. As time passed and it started getting chillier, their situation quickly became desperate. Every morning a number of dead bodies had to be disposed of, a task assigned to the Jews. Fortunately, I never had to do this. In the transit camp a few of us were given the job of bringing in water in a huge barrel mounted on wheels, from a water source located outside the camp perimeter. The camp was surrounded by barbed wire and electrified wires, with armed guards in watchtowers. The prisoners were usually in bad shape, suffering from malnutrition, fatigue, and exposure. Once a day they got a water soup and about 250 grams of moldy bread. The soup was cooked from moldy cabbage into which had been dropped a few pieces of rotting fish or meat.
The camp operated for about three months. It finally closed down at the end of October or maybe the beginning of November 1941. While it operated, at least 100,000 POWs passed through on their way to more permanent sites. We very much pitied them and, when we could, tried to help with a piece of bread, a drink of water, or a found cigarette butt. But their miser was so great that our best efforts amounted to no more than a drop in the ocean. Of course, at the time neither they nor we had any inkling of the scope of the calamity that awaited us all. Of the estimated six to eight million prisoners the Germans captured in Russia, only twenty-five percent survived. The rest were executed or died from systematic hard labor and starvation. The Jews of Europe fared even worse. They had only about a ten percent rate of survival; most of the other ninety percent died by direct execution.
During the last days of July 1941, an order came from the German authorities for all Jews to surrender any and all Persian rugs they might have in their possession. My sister Minya, who was in the last days of her pregnancy, owned one of decent quality and about two by three meters in size. She had me help her drop it off at the Kommandantur. The commandant saw us bring it in and, I am sure, noticed Minn's condition.
That afternoon a German soldier drove up to our house with a horse and wagon loaded with several sacks of flour and potatoes and proceeded to unload the wagon. "Courtesy of the commandant," he said. Needless to say, these food supplies were a godsend and we made them last quite a while. That major was obviously a decent man and, in the limited framework of his position, apparently tried to do as little harm as he could get away with and even to help when possible. It was always my sincerest hope that he would survive the war in good shape.
In early August 1941 my sister gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, without medial assistance. By pure chance we were fortunate enough to have staying with us for a couple of days a Jewish woman from the town of Ilya, about forty-five kilometers away, and she was of considerable help in the delivery.
This lady--whose name, I regret, I cannot recall--had an Aryan "appearance" and easily passed for gentile. Because of this she could move from town to town without too much difficulty. People with this particular endowment were considered lucky and were much envied by others considered to have the more traditional Jewish look. No doubt many owed their survival to this lucky chance. The woman was looking for her husband and her only son. They had all been in the town of Vileyka at the time all Jewish males fourteen to sixty-five were ordered to assemble in the town square, and her husband and her son vanished with the local Jews. It was through this woman that we first heard of what had occurred in Vileyka. She was on her way to some other town or village to investigate a rumor that Vileyka Jews had been seen there. She had already checked several other leads, all false. She stayed with us only a few days. Who knows how many more rumors she would subsequently investigate. Quite a few, I would venture to guess.
Two days before Simchas Torah of 1941, I was sent to the state farm at Lubanye for three days of work as part of the contingent of young people sent there periodically. It was the time of the year for potato harvesting. One of the regular non-Jewish workers, working with a team of horses, plowed a furrow about half a kilometer long to expose the potatoes. Our job was to follow and pick these potatoes and bag them. Before we finished one furrow, the next usually lay exposed, ready and waiting for us. Thus we were under constant pressure to work faster. The overseer berated and harassed us with shouts of "Keep moving, you lazy sons of bitches. You're delaying the horses." By the end of a day like that we were naturally pretty exhausted and our backs hurt from all that bending.
On our third and last day of work, the day of Simchas Torah, we were out in the fields as usual, spread four to five meters apart from each other, facing a furrow with freshly exposed potatoes. Off in the distance we noticed two people with guns approaching. As they got closer I recognized them both as two young men from our town of Kurenits and barely a year older than me. One was called Blizniuk and the other, Polevik. They were now members of the town police force and both were well known to us. I was not on unfriendly terms with either of them.
As all of us workers stood facing the approaching policemen, I had an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, like everyone else, I suppose. Never before had Kurenits police come up to Lubanye. The sight of them now did not bode well, especially as they were carrying guns. One was holding some sort of paper in his hand and he glanced down at it from time to time. The pair marched up the line of Jewish young people facing them and, as they went by, from time to time they called out one of our names and plucked that person out of the line. In all they pulled fourteen of us out and I was one of the fourteen.
We got only vague answers to our questions about what was happening. My mind started running at high speed, looking for some explanation of why I had been selected to be arrested. I had certainly been no activist for the Russians; in fact, during the almost two years of their administration, I had come to dislike their system. It must be, I though, that my name had somehow got mixed up with the name of a distant relative of mine, with the same family name, who was an activist. Yes, that must be it, I though. I'd be able to straighten this out once we got to the police station. A feeling of hope and belief in some order--a feeling that the world wasn't totally upside down--still prevailed then.
It was about six kilometers from Lubanye to Kurenits. The first five kilometers were through woods and the last, just before Kurenits, wa through open fields. In the woods we walked together with the policemen, mingling and talking like old friends. One of our grouop of fourteen was a young man by the name of Arke Ruvke's, Aaron the son of Ruvke Alperovich. He was about three years older than I and quite strong physically. Halfway through the woods something happened that shook me to the core. Arke walked alongside of me for a while and whispered, "They're going to kill us. Let's overwhelm them now before we get out of the woods." Properly organized, this could probably have been accomplished easily. But the idea seemed preposterous. Why should these people kill us? I considered myself innocent of any wrongdoing and so did everyone else in the group. And what would happen after the pair was overwhelmed? Where would we go then? We would be fugitives and unable to move freely. And what bout our families? They might all be punished, even shot. Much later, by the way, after we had become less na•ve and the true nature of what the Germans intended became clearer, that uncertainty about what could happen to their families kept most people in check and restrained them from running away to the woods or giving more open expression of revolt. Needless to say, I disregarded Arke's suggestion and so did others he also tried to persuade.
What really impressed me at the time, though, was the look in his eyes. It took me back to my schooling under the Soviets, where I had to read quite a few of the Russian classics. In one story, by Lermontov, a young nobleman in the military is assigned, because of some infraction of discipline, to an out-of-the-way garrison where there are no young women. The boredom is great. When the commander's daughter comes to visit, the young nobleman promptly falls in love with her, as do several other officers, and one of them challenges the young nobleman to a duel over the young woman. A friend of the nobleman's, in the course of preparations for the duel, foretells that the nobleman will die in the coming encounter. When asked how he can know an outcome before it happens, he answers that the eyes of a man who is about to die reflect death for an hour or two before the event and that this can be seen by anyone who looks into them. The nobleman fights the duel and, of course, is killed.
The story made quite an impression on me. I remember wondering whether that was really possible. Now, looking into Arke's eyes as he talked to me about overwhelming the policemen, I was sure I saw death. I remember thinking clearly, "Oh my God, if he is just about to die, then the fate of the rest of us is also sealed. Can this really be?" The mind will not accept such a verdict willingly or easily--not on such short notice and especially not if known to be based on a work of romantic fiction.
We all continued walking together toward Kurenits, still in a more or less friendly atmosphere. I began feeling more nervous from the moment I saw Arke's eyes and I now considered the chances of a satisfactory ending to this episode greatly reduced. Where were they taking us? And what actually lay in wait for us when we got there? The answers to these questions were not long in coming.
As soon as we came out of the woods into the open country, the policemen's demeanor changed abruptly. The fell back about three meters behind us and pointed their rifles at us. Gone was their former amiable and comradely behavior. We now had behind us two snarling policemen ready to shoot at the slightest provocation. They began and kept up a diatribe accusing us Jews of helping the Soviets, and spat out a story about how a man called Peter--one of their unofficial leaders, who had been arrested by the Soviets shortly before the war started--had been executed in the jail in Vileyka.
This last was probably true. We had heard rumors that the Russian security forces executed all their prisoners in that jail, and most likely in all the other jails under their control, because there was not enough time to evacuate them. After the Russians left and before the Germans arrived, relatives and friends of prisoners rushed to the jail and discovered the remains of their loved ones, all executed. It was easy to imagine the anger and rage of the two policemen at such atrocities, but why pick on us? Peter was young and well like in the Jewish community. He mixed with Jewish men his age in friendly fashion and was definitely no Jew-hater. His arrest had nothing to do with Jews, his execution even less. Both were the result of a brutal political system that victimized Jew and non-Jew alike.
But all of this was of no interest to the two policemen. It became more and more clear that what motivated them was a need for revenge--not for something we had done, but for something the Soviets had done. Throughout history Jews have been scapegoats for people who wanted to vent their anger at a higher authority beyond their reach, an authority at whom they could only grit their teeth. What a convenient punching bag the Jews made under the Germans. No one was punished for injuring or even killing a Jew. Little did I suspect at this time that one of these two policemen, together with yet another, would a few months later in March 1942, go on a rampage and kill thirty-two Jews in Kurenits, my father and two of my sisters among them. And for this the pair was not punished at all, but actually praised by the Germans. I was told that an article appeared in a White Russian newspaper printed in the German-occupied city of Minsk, the capital of White Russia, describing the pair as great patriots of White Russia.
We were well out of the woods now with only open space between us and the first houses of the town. As we got closer, we came upon some armed German soldiers, which was very odd because there weren't supposed to be any Germans in town. There were none when we left for Lubanye two days earlier. The German major and his company of troops had been in charge for just the first five or six weeks of the German occupation. When they left, the town came under civilian administration and there had been no Germans in town since then.
The German soldiers let us pass. At close range their uniforms and insignia looked different. They were, as we found out later, SS Einsatzkommandos (SS Emeregency Strike Force), who specialized in exterminating supposed enemies of the German Reich within conquered territories--communists, Jews, gypsies, and others. (SS stood for Schutzstaffel, or "Protection Detachment," an elite guard also known as the "Black Shirts.") We were going by houses now. A little farther on was the house of a schoolmate of mine, a young woman whose name was Khayke Rabunski. As we walked by, I saw her standing at a window, looking out. When she saw us being led by policemen, she threw her hands together in an exclamation of horror and I distinctly heard her cry out, "Oh, dear God, they're taking Khaskl away." (Khaskl is my Jewish name.)
It soon became apparent something horrible was happening in Kurenits. The street we were being marched down led to the public square in the center of town. We were coming to a small bridge over a stream, and right next to this bridge stood Arke's house. As we marched past, Arke suddenly bolted into his yard and sprinted on through into the open fields, with one of the policemen in hot pursuit. The other policeman ordered the rest of us to start running and hit me in the back with his rifle butt by way of encouragement. We were driven at a fast trot over the remaining half kilometer to the police station in the town square.
Before we were herded into the police station, we saw a group of about twenty-five Jews, mostly women and children, standing under guard in front. Once inside, we were locked up in a small room. Two Kurenits Jews who had been put there before us were sitting on the floor in a corner. One was a childhood friend of mine and a classmate, Nokhum Alperovits, and the other was Velvl Rabunski. "What's going on here?" The question seemed to come from everybody at once. "They're going to kill us. That's what's going on," they answered and proceeded to tell us how they had been arrested the night before. One group, they said, had already been taken outside of town, made to dig their own graves, and had then been shot. "They'll be coming for the rest of us soon."
Velvl Rabunski's wife, Rosa, worked as a maid at the police station. Thanks to her intervention and pleading, Velvl had been allowed to stay behind temporarily. Nokhum had been picked up too late to be sent out with the first party. They said they had no hope whatever of getting out of this alive. I remember proposing that when we were taken out we should all run in different direction so that one or two might survive. The response I got was, "What's the use? They'll get us anyway." I had to admit the chances of success were really slim. And so we too sank to the floor ready for the worst. We too lost all hope.
We arrived at the police station about noon. We would stay there until five or so in the afternoon. All that time we expected that the door would open at any moment and that we would be led away by the Germans and shot. When the door finally did open, the person who came in was Matros, the former principal for the public high school were Nokhum and I had both been students. He was a major in the Polish army reserves and a recognized leader in the local Polish community. Matros later paid for this honor with his life, along with his wife and on of their two grown sons, late in the spring of 1942, when the Germans liquidated the Polish leadership and intelligentsia. There were rumors that the other son, who at the time lived with a relative in another town, later became a German collaborator. The principal spoke to us encouragingly and when he left we felt at least a glimmer of hope returning.
About an hour later, we were all released. To this day I'm not sure why we were let go. The principal, I realized later, wasn't influential enough to accomplish our release on his own. There were rumors that the Germans, after taking the second group (the one we saw standing in front of the police station when we came in) and disposing of them in the same manner as the first, were too lazy to take out still another group, especially so late in the afternoon. Maybe they had another job scheduled somewhere else the next day. In any case, by then they had disappeared from Kurenits.
For a period of several hours we had been without any hope at all. I remember Velvl Rabunski saying at one point, "What a beautiful world this will be after the war. Hitler is definitely going to be defeated"--in this we all concurred--"but we aren't going to be around to see him defeated or to enjoy life afterwards. Because we're all going to be dead in a few hours." No one contradicted him. It certainly looked true enough at the moment. I was barely eighteen; at such a tender age it is quite terrible to expect life to end in a short hour or two. But miracles do happen and here I was, back with my family, free of the nightmare.
By the next morning it was possible to take stock of the terrible events of the previous thirty-six hours: in all, the SS had killed fifty-three Jews, over half of them women and children. Some of those picked up were the families of the activists who had fled eastward. Some were young men who never cooperated with the Soviets except by holding a regular job. They went to their deaths with their families--parents, sisters, and brothers. They were forced to dig their own mass grave and were then shot.
Two young men--one, about twenty years old, the younger son of Pinye Alperovits the kosher butcher and the other, Osher from Dolhinov Street, about thirty years old--managed to break away from the pit and run back toward town with Germans and police in pursuit. They made it to a barn on Dolhinov Street and tried to hide there, but were discovered, beaten severely, and then dragged back to the pit and shot.
I was very anxious to find out what had happened to Arke, one of the fourteen in our group brought back from Lubanye, who had run away. The news was not long in coming. According to witnesses who saw and heard everything, the policeman giving chase to Arke caught up with him, whereupon Arke turned around and grabbed the policeman's rifle. Being of superior strength he was able to wrestle it away from the policeman. This was more the result of inspiration of the moment than calculation because as soon as Arke found himself in possession of the gun, he realized that he didn't know what to do with it. As I explained previously, we weren't yet psychologically ready to oppose the authorities actively, much less grab a gun and shoot a German or a policeman and then escape into the woods. The policeman senses Arke's state of mind and took advantage of it. In a honeyed voice he said, "Oh, come on, Arke. Stop fooling around. Give me the gun and we'll walk back." Arke hesitated, his fate hanging in the balance as seconds slid by. Then, spurred by his desperate will to survive, Arke made a final attempt to escape. After heroically wrestling the gun away from the policeman, he had some measure of hope and encouragement.
With the gun in his hands he took off at high speed heading towards the village of Pukien and the woods beyond it. But his act of desperation was like jumping from the fire into the frying pan. The chances of making his escape were practically nil. The town was surrounded by police and SS troops. Arke was running in an open field and made quite a visible target. Shots were fired at him from several directions and before Arke covered the first thirty meters he was brought down by a bullet. He crumpled to the ground unable to move. Several policemen surrounded him. Then Blizniuk, the first policeman who chased Arke from the moment he broke away from our group closed in, retrieved his gun and shot Arke death at close range as he lay wounded on the ground. He became the fifty-fourth victim.
My father compiled a detailed list of all fifty-four of the victims, including their first and last names, their ages, their addresses, and the names of their parents. The list was found in his suit pocket after he himself was killed, about six months later, by this same Blizniuk.
It was a miracle I had not succumbed along with the fifty-four. What we needed in those times was something on the order of a new miracle every day. The great majority of the Jews didn't get the benefit of even one; a few were saved miraculously not once but several times over, only to run out of miracles after successfully dodging death these three or four more times. However, there were no miracles for Arke that day. I believe he somehow sensed that his end was at hand, and even though he tried desperately to avoid it, his growing agitation brought the inevitable to pass.
Before the war, Vileyka was an unpretentious, middle-sized town of about 15,000 inhabitants, 4,000 of whom were Jews. Late in October 1941 it became the seat of the provincial government. Actually the Soviets had earlier raised Vileyka to this high status by making it the capital of what was once called Vilner gubernie (Vilno province). The city of Vilno (Polish Wilna Lithuanian Vilnius) had always been the capital of Lithuania, except for the period between the two world wars, when it was annexed to Poland. In October 1939 the Russians generously returned Vilno to Lithuania, along with a few neighboring towns, and Vilno once more became the capital--only to be annexed by the same Russians a few months later, along with the rest of the country, and made one of the Soviet republics as it still is today.
The Germans cut Vileyka province in two. Gluboke was made the capital of the northern half, while the city of Vileyka was retained as the capital of the southern half. The provincial governor--called Gebietskommissar--along with scores of officials, both military and civilian, took up residence in Vileyka. Dozens of German businessmen also settled there in order to appropriate as much grain, cattle, and clothing as possible from our province for the German population back home. The military did their own separate requisitioning. All these people, with their staffs and secretariats, constituted quite a sizable number of Germans in need of living quarters and office space.
All that was left of the Jewish population of Vileyka at this time were women, children, and a few old men. All the men between the ages of fourteen and sixty-five had been executed at the beginning of the German occupation. Many of the houses and offices of Jews were empty and abandoned; some had been partially destroyed by looters. The Germans needed these living quarters and office space restored quickly for their own use. They ordered a number of carpenters, cabinetmakers, and painters to be sent from Kurenits to work in Vileyka. I joined the ranks of the painters.
Painting came naturally to me even though most of what I knew about it came only from watching painters working. As a child I loved to watch people at work, any kind of work. I could stand for hours watching, with equal fascination, blacksmiths, shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, painters, and all the other artisans as they practiced their trades. My brother-in-law, Sam Spektor, was a trained artist-painter and produced beautiful canvases, undoubtedly the kind of work he loved best. However, to make a living in those days, he had to devote some of his time to other, less artistic work, like painting houses. I had the opportunity to watch him at work more than anyone else and I picked up enough about painting houses to be able to pass as an experienced housepainter.
It was becoming clearer that working people who could make themselves useful to the Germans stood a better chance of survival. If work was required, then so were workers. And the more important the job, the better was this chance. Suddenly everybody wanted to work, especially if they could get an official certificate indicating their new job status. A work certificate was very desirable and became a much sought-after talisman, as if this alone could make the difference between life and death. Many paid a high price, even gold, to obtain one. A few unscrupulous people, helped by some officials and even some Germans, made a thriving business out of selling work certificates. But in the end most of these certificates proved of little value. Only a few of the most highly skilled workers--those the Germans really needed and could not do without--were spared, but only for a while.
I became one of the painters working for the Gebietskommissar in Vileyka. Because his was the highest provincial authority, working for him gave us a greater sense of protection. This proved valuable when the Germans decided later on to finish off what remained of the Vileyka Jews. I was one of the five painters from Kurenits: two adults, Yosef Zuckerman (Yosef Saras) and Irma Meir-Aarons Alperovits, and three young male apprentices, Hershl Zimmerman (Hershl der Krivitser), his brother Judl, and I. We worked six days a week. Saturday afternoons we were allowed to go home to Kurenits, stay there overnight and part of Sunday, and then return to Vileyka Sunday afternoon. We were not paid, nor were we supplied with any food. We had to bring with us food enough to last the week.
There wasn't much I could take with me, since food reserves at home were meager and dwindling. But there was bread enough to eat. Sometimes in the evening, after work, we used to cook a soup of barley, beans, or such. Once in a while we obtained milk. And that was pretty much our constant daily fare. Such delicacies as meat, butter, and eggs were seen only in dreams. Breakfast consisted of bread and hot water. I called it "tea with buttered bread (broyt mit puter mit tey)" because that was what I used to have for breakfast at home before the war. So what if there was no butter to put on the bread and no tea or sugar to go with the hot water. I made believe it was the same old "tea with buttered bread." Once I got used to it, it wasn't so bad really, especially since I knew that some people had it much worse.
The first few weeks we painters were in Vileyka we slept on the floor of whatever house we were working in. These houses were unoccupied at the time and the Germans would not move in until all the work was completed and the houses thoroughly cleaned. After four or five weeks of this sleeping about, we were placed in a house where an old Jewish woman lived by herself. She had lost her husband and two sons in August when the Germans took all the men away. It was arranged for a young woman from Kurenits to be our cook and prepare some dishes for us from the few supplies available. She was Nokhum Alperovits's middle sister, Henia. The house was small and had only a kitchen, a bedroom, and a living room. Henia slept in the bedroom with the old woman, while the five of us painters slept in the living room, the older men on the two couches, one person on the table, and the other two on the floor. It was crowded and not easy to get a good night's sleep.
One day I met a young man a few years older than I who was a native of Vileyka and one of only a handful of younger Jewish men still alive in Vileyka. This young man invited me to sleep in his house, where there was a sofa I could use. I accepted gladly. For about two months I spent my evenings and stayed overnight with his family, which included his father, about seventy-five years old, and his older sister, about forty. Her husband had been taken away with the other men in July. They were nice people and I felt quite at home with them. Food was scarce, so I never ate with the family at their house. I had my supper, or what passed for supper, at the house where the other painters stayed.
One of our first jobs was to paint the inside of a house that was to be used by the Gebietskommissar. The Germans supplied the paint and other materials. How important the job was and how quickly it had to be done was underlined when the civil administration of Vileyka sent over some non-Jewish painters to lend us a hand. These men were paid a full wage in money and got extra food rations and cigarettes. This was the only time we ever worked on any job with non-Jews. As it turned out we had to repeat this particular job several times over before receiving the Gebietskommissari's nod of approval. Only after the third or fourth painting was he finally satisfied and then he gave us each a pack of cigarettes. Cigarettes were the unofficial currency of the time and could be traded for food or other essentials. I used to bring mine home to my father, who craved cigarettes. Smoking was more important than food for him.
After the governor's house was finished, we had to pain the houses and offices of lesser officials. We also worked on repainting their theater. What I remember most, however, was working on the house of the chief of the local SD, which stands for Sicherheitsdiensti (Security Service). The SD were part of the SS and their sole mission was exterminating Jews and gypsies and all others they considered undesirable. The number of Germans in these local SD units was not great--perhaps about thirty in all--but in less than two years they were responsible for exterminating about eight-five percent of all the Jews in the province under their jurisdiction. Only a few Jews managed to survive through 1943 and into 1944. Other provinces had similar SD units who also proved themselves equal to their assigned mission.
The Germans couldn't accomplish this all by themselves. It wouldn't have been physically possible. They were assisted by special volunteers recruited in Latvia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine--countries known for their widespread anti-Semitism. These volunteers were part of the SD units and wore the same uniforms as the Germans did, with the same skull insignia on their hats. They were zealous and efficient and did most of the actual killing, while the Germans took on more of a supervisory role. It was a labor of love for these volunteers, who all seemed to be selected for size: they stood at least two meters tall or more and weighed at least 100 kilos. Their imposing presence and the wild look in their eyes instilled fear in our hearts and mesmerized us as effectively as a cobra mesmerizes its prey.
The house of the SD chief formerly belonged to the warden of the big jailhouse in Vileyka under the Polish administration. Later the warden's house was taken over by the Russians and then by the chief of the SD. It stood next to the courthouse, in the same compound, on a hill overlooking the jail. Both buildings were of impressive size. The former courthouse was used by the SD for offices, interrogation, and torture.
It took us about three weeks to complete the paint job to the SD chief's satisfaction. During the time we were working on the house, he came by a couple of times to check on how the work was progressing. You could not imagine a more soft-spoken, amiable man. We were, nonetheless, under no illusions about what cruelty the man was capable of. The distinctive smell of burning human flesh assaulted our nostrils most of the time we were working on the chief's house. Relief came only when the prevailing winds shifted for a while. Dozens of human beings were being shot in Vileyka every day, then thrown into a huge pit near the old courthouse and burned. The fire in the pit was fed by a constant flow of gasoline or kerosene and it burned day and night for as long as the SD was there, that is, approximately three years. People were continually brought into the old courthouse to be interrogated, tortured, and incarcerated. Sooner or later most of them wound up in the pit, where they were converted into reeking particles that permeated the air for blocks around. Anyone approaching the SD compound within a wide area was assaulted by the stench of carbonized human bodies.
During the time we worked there, around Christmas of 1941, the victims were mostly non-Jews: gypsies, communists or people suspected of being in sympathy with the Soviets, and intellectuals were considered unreliable, especially if they were Polish and in the Polish leadership. Several months later, the former of the Kurenits public school, Matros, was brought in along with his wife and grown son. They ended up in the pit. There were undoubtedly some Jewish victims too, but I knew of only one such family.
Late one afternoon, after work, when I came into the house where I was staying temporarily, I found a frightened little girl of about ten sitting at the table. There was caked blood behind her left ear, her eyes were glazed and showed signs of shock and stress, and her speech was semi-coherent. She'd already told the family with whom I was staying the story of what had happened to her and her family.
Her parents and the three children, of which she was the youngest, lived in the village of Neyka, about nine kilometers east of Kurenits. Their family was one of only three still living there; most Jews had abandoned village life and moved into the larger towns after the first world war. But there were still a few holdouts. The girl's family decided to move into Kurenits to be near other Jews during these difficult times. They may also have had relatives there. They were on the road, coming in by horse and wagon, when they were arrested. Jews had no right to move from one place to another without specific authorization. Jews also had no right to use a horse and wagon. Actually they had no right to anything. If caught on a road traveling, they were especially fair game. It was not clear whether the girl's family was intercepted by chance or whether they were denounced by their former neighbors. They wound up in the SD compound in Vileyka.
A visit to the SD compound was a one-way trip. There should have been a sign on the gates of the compound with these words, to reflect its true function: "Through these gates people enter but never leave." The girl's whole family was shot. Sometimes bodies weren't thrown into the burning pit right away, and that's what happened in this case. Fortunately, the bullet did no more than graze the girl's skull behind the left ear and leave her stunned. We could only guess how long she had remained in that state. It may have been minutes, or it may have been an hour or two. When she did come to, she crawled to a hole in the fence around the compound and escaped. She wandered around in shock for a while and then knocked on the door of a house, of non-Jews as it turned out. By chance, good people lived there and they brought her over to our house. We calmed her down as best we could and she stayed the night with us. The next day she was somehow smuggled into Kurenits, where she must have shared the eventual fate of most Kurenits Jews; I don't believe she survived.
After two months we decided that because of the strict night curfew it would be best for me to come back and stay overnight with the other painters. So I gave up the more comfortable lodging I had enjoyed with the family and moved back with my co-workers.
Later we heard that the old man of the family had been arrested one evening and was being held in the jail. A strict curfew was in force from sundown to sunup. At night all windows had to be covered so that no light could show through. The old man's chouse had wooden shutters that effectively blocked the light their kerosene lamp gave off. It so happened, however, that a knot in the shutter wood shrank just enough to become loose and fall out. This left a hole the size of a quarter which nobody in the family noticed. Unfortunately, one evening the police or the SD passed by and saw the tiny ray of light coming through the shutter. They arrested the old man. His young son who had befriended me recognized what the nighttime knock at the door might be and managed to hide successfully.
I saw the old man once more, and I wish I had not, because whenever I think of him and his family, this last scene comes back before my eyes. One afternoon, while I was coming back from the jail, under guard, digging and pushing a stalled German car out of a snowbank. The old man's face was marked with welts and cuts; one eye was swollen shut. He was obviously being beaten and tortured. Maybe this was the last time he was outside of that jail. Just when he actually perished I do not know, but neither he nor his son nor his daughter survived the final liquidation of the Vileyka Jews in March of 1942.
One night I awoke to the sound of church bells ringing loudly in my ears. It was as if the bells of all the churches in town were tolling at once. I lay where I was for a long time trying to comprehend why church bells would be ringing in the middle of the night. Soon my head ached and my temples throbbed. This, coupled with the difficulty I had raising my head off the pillow, finally made me realize I was experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning. I was familiar with the symptoms because, when growing up, I had heard many stories of people found unconscious or even dead as the result of a poorly ventilated stove that allowed the poisonous gas to build up. I forced myself to get on my feet and wake up the others. The girl, Henia, and the old woman were only half conscious, but they revived quickly when we took them out into the fresh air outside. It was a narrow escape for all of us.
The month of March 1942 arrived. It wasn't spring yet. There was still plenty of snow on the ground and the nights were still cold. But the relentless grip of the winter cold had eased and the days were getting slightly, but noticeable, warmer. A definite promise of spring was in the air. The festival of Purim was only a few days away.
News began filtering in that Jews were being massacred in several towns. Some massacres were partial and lasted only a day or two. Whoever got caught during the roundup was eliminated, but those who survived by escaping or hiding were allowed to return and resume their lives in town. After such an "action" (aktion, the Germans called it), the authorities usually put the few surviving Jews into a ghetto. Some towns went through several such purges before the Germans pronounced them Judenrein, that is, "clear of Jews." The final massacre ran for as long as necessary. With many non-Jewish neighbors assisting, Jews were discovered hiding in attics, under floorboards, behind double walls, and in many other ingenious places. Some Jews managed to avoid discovery for days, even weeks. But in the end, unless they were able to slip away without being seen and reach the safety of the woods, they were discovered. One could not stay in hiding in the middle of a town forever. And the chances of getting out of a hiding place and away were best the first night. As the searches got more thorough, the chances of getting away diminished steadily each successive night.
The Germans explained away the partial massacres with some excuse or other and assured the survivors they were now safe. It didn't necessarily follow that the Germans were believed, but what else could Jews do? Where else could they go? People always hoped that the next time they'd again manage to hide or escape. At this time the woods afforded at best only temporary safety because there were few partisans there. The measure of protection the partisans would eventually provide didn't materialize until the end of the summer of 1942. During the first half of 1942, few Jews chose to stay in the woods permanently. Survivors of partial "actions" usually returned to the towns they lived in. The few survivors of complete and final "actions" sought refuge in towns that had not yet been touched by the full German fury.
Then came the news that the Jews of the town of Volozin, where my oldest married sister, Sarah, had been living for ten years, had also been executed. A faint ray of hope still remained in my heart at the time; maybe by some miracle she had survived. But of course the bitter truth was that she perished in the massacre of the great majority of the Volozin Jews. After the war a survivor told me about it.
We still hoped, no matter how weakly, that somehow we would live to see the Germans defeated, a defeat we all believed would eventually occur. Slowly but surely, however, the ultimate German plan for the Jews was becoming clear to us. They intended to empty all captured lands of all Jews. It took time for this realization to crystallize, but it was a conclusion everybody came to sooner or later--except those who consciously chose to close their eyes and ears to logic and reality. Unfortunately, there were many people in this category. Their way of coping with the situation was to say that Jews should carefully avoid provoking the Germans and conscientiously perform the tasks the Germans assigned to them. Then the Germans would leave them alone. These people refused to believe the word reaching us about all the massacres or, rather, they found ways to explain away what was happening--as if there could be a rational explanation for the murder of a whole town of Jews. But this was the road to survival these distressed people chose.
I remember one case clearly. This particular Jew was about forty years old and came from a town about fifty kilometers away. The Germans had just murdered all the Jews they could get their hands on there, including the man's wife and children. He was lucky enough to escape with his life and somehow or other made it to Vileyka. I happened to meet him one day while he was telling his story and giving his opinion that the Germans would eventually do the same to every Jew in every town.
I saw no reason to disbelieve the man, and I did not entirely disagree with his assessment of what was awaiting us. Yes, it did sound extreme, but it also sounded plausible. Some of the younger people who were there and heard the man speak felt more or less the same way I did. Others, however, said the man was crazy and suggested that the terrible loss of his family had made him deranged. Young single people still had a sense of freedom of action and tended to see things differently than men who were weighed down with the responsibilities of caring of r a wife and children and felt there was no way they could run off to the woods, where the hardships of existence would be multiplied many times over. They put all their hopes into doing good work for the Germans and in making themselves as useful as possible. They actually tried to block out any information that might contradict their false assessment of the situation. Then came the festival of Purim.
We couldn't celebrate Purim in any really traditional way, of course. In the evening I read the Megilla (Book of Esther), which is read in all synagogues in normal times. The best we could do was to gather a few of the neighbors, who made the trip to our house through backyards. They were mostly women and a couple of young girls. After the reading we all exchanged wishes that the latter-day Haman should meet the fate of the original one. Then everybody went back home and we bedded down for the night. Except for its being Purim, this was an evening like any other.
Later we recognized the pattern, but by the time we did, most of the Jews had already perished. The pattern was that most German "actions" against the Jews were carried out on Jewish holy days or, in order to confuse us, a few days before or after a holy day. Soviet Russian holidays could also trigger these "actions."
Thus, around three in the morning of Purim, 1942, I was suddenly awakened by a loud banging on the front door. This door was never used in the winter and the snow on the steps normally lay fresh and untrampled. So I knew from the first what the knocking meant. "This is it," I remember thinking. "The SD have come for us."
The animal instinct for self-preservation takes over automatically in time of danger. My first thought was to run. "Maybe out the back door," I thought. I started to put on my pants in the dark. I always used to leave my clothes on a stool next to where I slept so they would be handy in case of an emergency. I grabbed what I thought were my pants, which I usually left on top, and tried to get into them. In the excitement and terror of the moment, I couldn't get my foot through the leg. Then there was knocking at the back door. Somebody opened it and Germans came in. The kerosene lamp was lit and there I was standing half-naked with my shirt in my hands. No wonder I hadn't been able to get my foot into the sleeve.
The Germans told us to finish dressing. We were facing three huge men in SD uniforms, with the dreaded skull on their caps. All carried submachine guns. They led us out the back door and into the yard. There we were confronted by three more SD men, making six of them all told. There were seven of us--the two women and the five of us painters. The SD men marched us out of the yard and into the street towards a truck visible about a block away. A full moon glowed in the sky and the light it gave was intensified by reflections off the snow that lay on the ground. It was bright enough to read a newspaper. "Once we get to that truck we're doomed," I remember thinking. "I must keep my eyes open for a good time and spot, and then I'll make a run for it."
At one point I was all set to make the fateful sprint, and had even taken the first step, but something held me back. I suddenly realized there was no way I could have gotten away. And lucky for me I didn't try. I would have been cut down before taking a few steps.
We got to the truck and were ordered to climb in. A few people were there already and more were arriving all the time. In only five minutes the truck was filled to capacity. Canvas flaps at the back and on the sides were lowered. We stood in total darkness with guards on the truck all around us. Then the truck started moving. We couldn't tell what direction it was going in, but it did not really matter. There was no question in our minds that we were being taken to our deaths. We were more seasoned now; eight months under the Germans had dispelled much of our earlier naivetŽ. Now we knew just what we could expect. We said goodbye to each other. I stopped thinking about trying to flee because I knew by this time it would be impossible.
About ten minutes later the trucked stopped. The canvas flaps were raised and we were ordered out. The place was well lit with artificial light. As we got off the truck, one by one, we were yelled at to run a gauntlet of SD men holding wooden clubs about the size of baseball bats. Two rows of facing SD men stretched from the truck to a building about thirty meters away. The building turned out to be a large garage, and I now recognized we were inside the SD compound that included the jail, the courthouse, and this garage. This was the dreaded place with the one-way ticket reputation.
To keep us moving, the SD men swung the clubs at and around our heads and shoulders. I made it through without getting hit. Others weren't so lucky. Several had received wounds that were bleeding profusely. Others, who had taken blows to the head, were in a semi-stunned condition. There was a purpose in all that yelling and swinging of clubs and making us run the gauntlet. It was not primarily to inflict pain or injury but to confuse us psychologically so that we could not orient ourselves or take stock of the situation. In this way no one would think of bolting. Cowboys use the same tactic herding cattle. All the noise and shooting in the air are for the purpose of driving the startled animals in the desired direction.
Once inside the garage, we were put in a corner and told to wait. Diagonally across from us, in the opposite corner of the garage, I saw a large group of about 300 people, mostly women and children. The "action" was in full swing now. Trucks arrived bringing more and more people, who were then driven into the garage. This continued all through the nigh and most of the following day.
We heard later that some people had not been picked up by the SD that first night. Jewish houses were obviously on a list prepared well in advance. But by faulty intelligence or simple oversight some houses had been missed. The next morning they started to walk to work, unaware of what had taken place during the night. They were then picked up on their way to work, or where they worked if they got that far, and trucked off to the garage.
Many of the Jews rounded up were originally from Kurenits, and a large number were young women working at menial jobs in Vileyka. One way or another they were all swept up by the "action." In the garage, smaller groups of Jews stood around and apart from the large group. I recognized the chief of the SD as he walked up to one of these smaller groups. He talked to the people there and one by one motioned with his hand for them to join the large group. Within a few minutes he had disposed of all the small groups in this way--by making them a part of the large group--all except ours. We were still standing apart. The chief of the SD now approached us. My knees felt weak. With a flick of his finger this man had sent who knows how many people to their deaths with no more emotion than it takes to swat a fly. Over 300 people in just the last hour or two. And in his whole career, maybe as many as 100,000! Yet to hear the man talk you would think him the gentlest and most civilized person in the world who could not possibly wish you any harm.
"Wo arbeiten Sie? (What is your place of work?)," he politely asked the first person he reached in our group, using the formal and polite Sie instead of the informal and intimidating du. To address somebody as Sie in German indicates a modicum of deference, especially when coupled with the honeyed tones the chief now used.
"Wo arbeiten Sie?" each person in our group was asked in turn and all answered. The older ones who didn't work said so. The chief's finger flicked in the direction of the large group. People who had work said where it was: the post office, the German police station, other offices. In all, about ten different places of work were mentioned. The chief's response was the same to all--a flick of his finger towards the main group.
When the chief finally got to one of us painters, the answer to his question was, "I'm a painter and I work for the Gebietskommisar (provincial governor)." This time the finger didn't move. "Have you the certificate to prove it?" the chief asked. We each took out the certificates that stated we were working for the Gebietskommissar as painters, each certificate bearing the signature of a high-ranking official and the stamp of the Gebietskommisar. They had been given to us just two weeks earlier. The SD chief glanced at the certificates and told the five of us to stand apart by ourselves.
A tiny glimmer of hope kindled within us. We hadn't been put in with the main group that was obviously marked for death. I nourished that small flame of hope. Maybe, just maybe, he would let us live. It was far from a sure thing, of course; we were still in the hands of the SD, in the center of the infamous SD facility from which, so far as we knew, no Jew had ever come out alive. And what was to prevent the chief from changing his mind? Or to prevent one of his men from throwing us in with the others by oversight or malice?
Presently we were led into a small side room; there we joined eleven other people who had been picked out of previous truckloads. Later, we were joined by one more couple. Besides the five of us, two others, carpenters, were from Kurenits. The rest were from Vileyka: two saddlers with their wives and one twelve-year-old son, one candle-maker and his wife, one soapmaker and his wife, and, I believe, one printer and his wife. All told there were eighteen of us in the room.
We began to hear shooting outside and saw a yellow-reddish light coming through the small barred window high up near the ceiling, as it usually is in jails. We wanted to get up to the window to see what was happening outside. There was nothing in the room to stand on, so I hopped onto somebody's shoulders. We realized this was dangerous. If caught, we would probably have to join those outside. But the desire to know, if we could, what was going on was strong. I watched for no more than a minute.
What I saw were two SD men, each one leading a group of three people towards the fire. One group was close to the fire. The other group was just leaving the building. The fire came from the infamous pit about which we already knew.
And then I jumped down, glad we hadn't been caught watching. We heard shooting again and knew what it meant. The shooting continued throughout the rest of the night and through most of the next day.
Once, around midday, the door to our little room swung open and two Lithuanian SD burst in. They were drunk and their glassy eyes looked full of murder. In their foreign-sounding German one of them said," Was machen die Scheisse hier? (What are you shit doing here?)" For a moment or two we thought we'd had it. Luckily a superior officer happened by and ordered the men out of there and to leave us alone.
The day dragged on. No food or water was brought to us, but worry and tension depressed our appetites anyway and nobody felt hungry. Early in the evening the door finally opened and an officer came in. He announced that we were going to be released and told us to step back into the main garage.
How different the place looked now from when we had been brought in. The whole main group of Jews was gone. They had all been shot and burned not more than 150 meters from where we had spent the last fifteen hours. They had been taken out in small groups to the burning pit, shot with small-caliber weapons, and then shoved into the flaming hole in the ground. All of those brought in after us, even during the day, met the same fate. I'm not certain of the exact number of those that perished in this "action," but judging by the size of the Jewish population of Vileyka before the war, it could have been as many as 2,000, including the fifty Jews from Kurenits who were also killed. Eighteen people out of 2,000 were spared by the SD; eleven of the eighteen were natives of Vileyka.
But the garage was not entirely empty. Two women, both strikingly good-looking, were no where the main group had once stood. One was from Kurenits, Khayke Rabunski, who had gone to school with me and who, as I have recounted earlier, was looking out of the window as I was led by, coming from the Lubanye farm on Simchas Torah on October 1941. The other woman was a native of Vileyka, intelligent and cultured, and perhaps in her late twenties, with a teaching degree. To what purpose these two had been kept back, we could only speculate.
When we were marched back out into the big garage, the two women stood there facing us about seven or eight meters away. Khayke called out my name a couple of times in a hoarse whisper and asked me to let people know at the police station, where she worked, what had happened, in the hope they would come to her rescue. She repeated this plea several times, not being sure whether or not we had heard it. Poor soul, we couldn't even acknowledge with a nod that we had. We were afraid of antagonizing the Germans and imperiling our own chances for release. But the possibility that someone at the police station would come to Khayke's rescue was nonexistent. The power of the SD was so great and their latitude of activity so broad that even high-ranking German officials were afraid to take them on. SD authority went unquestioned.
In the almost empty garage, a German officer sat behind a long table covered from end to end with all sorts of valuables--gold, diamonds and other jewels, stacked in places a foot high and made up of rings, bracelets, brooches, pins, chains, earrings, and watches, perhaps weighing a good twenty-five kilos. Obviously it had all been taken from the victims before they were killed. The German officer asked us if any of our valuables had been taken away and if so, we were to look through the pile and retrieve them. But none had been taken because we didn't have any. I remember thinking at the time that if anything had been taken, I certainly would not call attention to myself by asking for it. Let them keep it. We just wanted to be released.
So I was astounded to hear one man, the candlemaker, I believe, answer, "Yes." A golden pocketwatch had been taken from him and he could see it there in the pile. I was even more astounded to hear the officer tell him to go ahead and take it. The man did so.
Then the officer took our names and addresses in order to provide an escort for us back to where we lived. When he asked Irma for his address, instead of giving the street and number of the house we stayed in, Irma blurted out that we were from Kurenits. The officer responded by saying he couldn't send us back to Kurenits at night. He put the five of us painters back in the little side room to spend another night and promised to see what could be done the next day.
Back in the room, behind the locked door, we once more felt dejected and forlorn. We had been so close to freedom only to be denied it at the last minute by an unfortunate remark from one of our own. It was really more than we could bear. Who could predict how the SD would feel the next morning? Understandably, Irma felt terrible. After somebody tried to reproach him for saying what he did, he picked up a brick lying on the floor and began to hit himself on the head with it to punish himself, as if that could help us in any way. The man was really on the verge of suicide. We had our hands full just trying to quiet him down and console him.
That night was the longest I can remember. Sleep was out of the question. Again we had no food or drink and again we felt neither hunger nor thirst. We heard sporadic shooting, but on a much smaller scale.
Morning came, but there was still no sign of our being released. Several hours went by. Fresh doubts arose about the outcome of this drama; if they intended to release us, then why were they still holding us? That was the nagging question at the back of our minds and it had no satisfactory explanation.
Then about eleven in the morning the door finally opened. An officer called us out into the garage. This time it was really empty. The long table was still there but now it lay bare. The valuables that 2,000 Jews consigned to oblivion, their lives extinguished by the flick of one man's finger to satisfy the bloodlust of the leader of the Herrnvolk (master race) and his henchmen. The two women--one a schoolmate and lifelong friend--had disappeared to who knows what fate before they, too, would be killed.
A mere thirty hours before, these people had been live human beings, each with their own aspirations and, above all, a desire to survive. I had known many of them personally and some had been close friends. Gone now was the family at whose house I had slept for two months recently. Gone were the neighbors who had come to hear me chant the Megilla: the older women and the two young daughters of one of the women, sixteen and seventeen years old, both of them redheads, beautiful, and intelligent. Gone too were our landlady and the young woman from Kurenits who had prepared our meals. All of them gone. Despite all this and despite the ordeal we had just been through, we simply felt happy we were still alive and elated that we were being released.
At the place we were taken to on the outskirts of Vileyka the Germans created a ghetto. Sixty families had been brought in from Kurenits, all headed by artisans, or, as they were called at the time, Spezialisten (skilled workers): tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, blacksmiths, sheet-metal workers, glaziers, and others the Germans had need for. All were allowed to bring along their wives and their children up to the age of fifteen.
The ghetto consisted of two long buildings the Russians had originally built as army barracks. The buildings were in a sorry state, without doors or windows, but we were moved in anyway. We were given permission to take what we needed from Jewish houses in Vileyka, now all unoccupied since the Purim "action." Within a few days, doors and windows were found and fitted and the barracks were made more livable. Officially, we were known as the Gebietskommissarsgetto (provincial governor's ghetto) because we worked for the Gebietskommissar.
Only real, experienced mechanics were brought to Vileyka and they came eagerly, even though it meant exchanging homes with many rooms and familiar surroundings for the cramped corner of a dormitory that had to be shared with several other families and that was without privacy or conveniences. It would also have been easier to cope with the food situation in Kurenits, where people knew some non-Jews and where bartering of clothing and articles for food would have been easier than in Vileyka, where all the people and surroundings were unfamiliar. Officially, Jews were prohibited from any social or business contacts with non-Jews; in Kurenits this would have been easier to circumvent because many Jewish houses were located in among the others.
Nonetheless, all these workers and their families were quite happy to move to Vileyka. By this time it was understood that working for the Gebietskommissar in Vileyka afforded some measure of protection. Not absolute protection--few were na•ve to believe that--but a measure of protection for the immediate future. News of the Vileyka Purim massacre, together with rumors and reports of Jews being wiped out in other neighboring towns, made Kurenits's Jews realize that Kurenits afforded no protection at all, even for workers. Sooner or later Kurenits would follow the same fate as the other towns.
Our two master painters, Yosef and Irma, brought their wives and children to Vileyka to be with them. About twelve of us, mostly young and unmarried, shared one room, sleeping on army cots. After some breakfast in the morning, we all--except the married women and the children--went to work and did not return until dark.
After a few days I managed to take off from work and go visit my family in Kurenits. This time, however, unlike all previous times, I had no official permission to go to Kurenits, much less to be absent from the new ghetto.
The route to Kurenits from the ghetto required crossing the entire town of Vileyka from one end to the other, a distance of about one and a half kilometers. There was, however, little danger in walking the streets of Vileyka because both the police and the Germans were used to seeing Jewish workers walking from one job to another. Once outside of town, though, you had to negotiate seven kilometers of public highway between the two towns. Here the danger was greater but still acceptable. Vehicles with Germans passed by and you could never be too sure whether they might take into their heads to "stop that wandering Jew." To forestall identification by taking off the yellow star of David we displayed on our clothes, front and back, could have proved even more dangerous. I actually worried about meeting up with the non-German policemen who sometimes traveled the road to Kurenits on bicycles. I kept a sharp lookout for them and whenever I spotted any in the distance, I hid in the bushes by the side of the road until they had passed.
In this way I arrived back home safely and was enthusiastically greeted by my parents and sisters. They had learned, as had everybody else in Kurenits, about the events in Vileyka on Purim from one Kurenits carpenter working in Vileyka just like us. He happened to wake up in the middle of the night of the "action" and, hearing all the commotion in the street, he got out as fast as he could. Using backyards and side streets he crossed the town of Vileyka and reached Kurenits before dawn, unchallenged. Within an hour the whole town of Kurenits buzzed with the news. At first, for a period of thirty-six to forty-eight hours, my family assumed I was among the dead. Then they heard I had been released. Naturally they were quite relieved to receive the news and anxious to see me. I stayed overnight in Kurenits and returned to Vileyka the next day.
Back in Vileyka I found the people in a somewhat more optimistic frame of mind. The living quarters in the ghetto barracks had been made more livable with the addition of a table and a couple of extra chairs. There were even curtains at the windows of our room, courtesy of the young women. This better mood came mostly as a result of feeling that we had just been handed a new lease on life--not permanent, or even long-term, but what we hoped would last for a while at least. The Germans wouldn't go to all the trouble of bringing in master craftsmen and allowing us to fix up the ghetto buildings unless they needed us. So went the thinking and there was some logic in it.
Spring had just begun and the weather was getting warmer. The often sunny days that followed also played a part in helping to lift our spirits. With the full encouragement of the Germans we built a small bathhouse between the two barracks. Germans were sticklers for cleanliness. They were afraid of epidemics that uncleanliness might bring on.
For me the euphoric feeling didn't last very long. One day, when I came home from work and walked into our room, I noticed that all conversation among the ten people present came to an abrupt halt. I didn't pay much attention to it at first, though it did seem odd. The next day I also noticed some whispering going on among the people around me. When I tried to join a group that was engrossed in conversation, they quickly separated. My questions were answered in a vague and offhand manner. I got the feeling that information was deliberately being kept from me and it all pointed in the direction of my family in Kurenits. Something must have happened, perhaps something terrible.
I decided then and there to leave for Kurenits in the morning and find out for myself what was up. It had been three weeks since my last visit back home and it was no longer possible to move between Vileyka and Kurenits as easily as before. Ghetto residents had been forbidden to be absent from the ghetto for any reason at all except work.
So the next morning I left the place I was working, with the other painters covering for me. Getting across Vileyka still presented no problem. Once outside of town I turned to the right off the main road, wen through some fields and reached a small village (the name of which I have since forgotten). There I picked up a small farm road leading almost the rest of the way to Kurenits. This detour added about two or three extra kilometers but was safer since I met no one at all the whole way.
My apprehension grew with each step as I approached my hometown. I could sense that something disastrous must have happened there, but I could not imagine the extent of it. As I entered the town square, I noticed Jews in the distance walking and going about their business in a quite normal manner. This confused me, but gave me a slight measure of hope that maybe this had all been a false alarm after all.
I soon ran into my friend Nyomke Shulman and asked, "Tell me what's happened. Has anyone been killed?" "Well," he answered evasively, "there are no exact figures yet. Many people ran away. And some of them haven't come back. It's not known how many are missing."
"What about my family? Are they all right?"
"Yes," he said. "Your mother is at the house o Zalman Mendl the shoemaker."
I didn't have to inquire any further. Without telling me outright, Nyomke had indirectly indicated the extent of the disaster.
I ran all the way to Zalman Mendl's house. There I found my mother holding little Shimshon, Minya's son, on her lap. Mother's eyes were puffy and red. She burst out crying again when she saw me and we cried in each other's arms for a long time. Shimshon, even when he was not crying, looked hopelessly sad and forlorn. This was not the happy baby who used to greet me with a big smile. His face showed how much he missed his mother. It was as if he understood. And I too knew what the tragedy was. All that was left was for Mother to tell me how it had happened.
The disaster had struck two days earlier, at about ten in the morning. Without warning, two Polish policemen, both of them drunk, barged into the house. They ordered everybody, except Mother, out into the backyard--my father, my sister Ethel, and my sister Minn with the baby in her arms. Then they shot Father and Minn dead. The baby fell from Minn's lifeless arms into the snow. Ethel tried to run away. She made it through an opening in the fence and across the street into another yard. There one of the policemen caught up with her and shot her dead, too. Mother was standing by the kitchen window and saw everything. There had to be an added measure of deliberate cruelty in murdering a woman's husband and children before her very eyes.
These policemen were not only accustomed to cruelty, they positively reveled in it. One, Blizniuk, was a native of Kurenits; he was the same policeman who had hauled me out of the Lubanye farm in the fall of 1941 and who, the same day, had shot Arke Ruvkes as he lay wounded on the ground. The man got a taste of blood then and apparently he liked it. The other policeman, from Kostenevich, a small town about seventeen kilometers away, was named Szarenkiewicz. He had participated in the killing of the fifty-four on Simchas Torah of 1941 and had also taken part in the liquidation of the Vileyka Jews on Purim. Besides my sisters and father, the pair of them had murdered twenty-nine other Jews in Kurenits, a total of thirty-two.
After the two policemen left, Mother went outside and lifted the terrified baby up out of the snow. She was helped to move into Zalman Mendl's so she would not have to live by herself with the baby in the house where the murders had occurred. Father and Minn were buried the next day in the Jewish cemetery outside of town. By the time I got to Kurenits only Ethel remained unburied, and with the help of a couple of men, we laid her to rest next to my father and Minya.
Artsik Gotyes, a friend of the family, was one of those who helped in the burial of all three members of my family. He handed me a piece of paper he had taken from my father's pocket. On the paper were listed all the names, and other detailed information, of the fifty-four victims who perished in the fall of 1941. To this list we now added the names of the thirty-two who had just been killed. I kept the paper on me for a long time, until it disintegrated over the next couple of years.
Yitskhok (Iche Hatsyes), my father, was about sixty-three years old when he was murdered. He was highly respected by both the Jewish community and the gentiles. He was a recognized scholar in all the holy scriptures, including the Talmud. He knew Hebrew and Russian and had a good knowledge of mathematics. He was a teacher most of his life and even taught Russian and mathematics in our public school and in night school. The policeman who shot him, Blizniuk, had once been a student of his in night school. To me he was more than a father; he was also my teacher, from the age of five through the age of fourteen, in all nonsecular subjects. He had a unique talent in explaining difficult passages in the scriptures in such a way as to make them easy to understand. His lectures on Mishna and Gemara were very much appreciated and well attended. He was considered a special authority on these subjects and he was even consulted on some difficult and tricky passages of law by the local rabbi. He had a sharp, analytical mind and all who knew him acknowledged him to be a brilliant scholar.
As a young teenager I never ceased to be amazed at my father's ability to demolish every argument an opponent in a discussion could come up with. He answered with such ease and logic that everyone present was soon won over, including the opponent. He also possessed a beautiful voice and was a cantor. His rendition and interpretation of the prayers, especially on the High Holidays, were deeply moving and soul-inspiring. He was also an excellent bal kriah--reader of the Torah. People who had the privilege of hearing him read the Torah and chant while leading the congregation in prayer still speak of it with a praise reserved for masters of these crafts.
It is told that an important Talmudic discussion once took place in Kurenits between a visiting rabbi from the city of Lublin and our local rabbi and several local scholars, my father among them. The topic was one aspect of a certain work by Rambam Maimonides. It was not unusual for this kind of discussion to last for several hours, as the learned men brought out and carefully analyzed all the fine points of law and brought to bear the many commentaries, all in the presence of a large congregation that would gather for such an event. At the end of this discussion the visiting rabbi turned to the congregation and, pointing to my father, said: "Here in Kurenits you have a priceless pearl. You should consider yourselves blessed by his presence among you." This took place when I was still a little boy and too young to know of it at firsthand, but it is related in a chapter by Abraham Dimenstein (Avrohom Merkes) in the book Megilat Kurenits (edited by Aaron Meirovitch 1956).
And now my father was gone. No longer would I be able to listen to his wise counsel or, with the numerous other students of his, children as well as adults, be able to drink at the deep well of knowledge he possessed.
Gone, too, were my two sisters Ethel and Minn, at the ages of thirty-one and twenty-eight. Ethel was a pretty brunette, the brainiest one among my sisters. Minya, my favorite, was not only ver pretty but also gentle, warm, very loyal to the family, and well-liked and well-thought of by all who came in contact with her. My sisters were cut down by two drunken policemen, eager for Jewish blood.
If there is any consolation, it is in the knowledge that some measure of justice came down on the pair of killers. They soon received their just due. One, the native of Kurenits, was killed four months later by partisans. The other was dispatched by the SD, for whom he often worked so diligently, into the same flaming pit into which he himself