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April 1982, Israel.
By Jehoash Alperovitch
The Escape from the Ghetto
Last week we watched a movie "The Wall", which showed the resistance of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. This movie reminded me of how my family and I escaped from our Ghetto in 1943. The Germans occupied our area in June 1941. After several months they organized a Ghetto in the city of Vilejka, about 5 miles from the town Kureniec, where I was born. The Jews of Vilejka were killed a short time before, but we were sure that they were evacuated to a work camp in another area, exactly like the Jews from Warsaw assumed, according to the movie.
In the Ghetto there were about 300 people, most of them women with children. In a short time the Germans divided the Ghetto in two: one - for specialists and the other - for people without defined specialties. Our family (father, mother, my young brother and I) was enrolled in the list of the specialists Ghetto, because my father and I became "Carpenters." We were sent to another location, about a mile from the common Ghetto. It was a big hut near the workshops where we worked. We were about 100 people including the specialists and their families. I was then 15 years old. About one month later the non-specialists Ghetto was liquidated and burnt down. We could see it burning through the windows of the workshops. Now, we could only wait for our turn and it was only a matter of time when our turn would come. During the first two weeks, six youths escaped from our Ghetto and they looked for a connection with the partisans, who only now began to have missions in our area. They badly needed guns and ammunition. Most of us intended to escape from the Ghetto in a short time, but we had two big problems. First of all the Ghetto was guarded at night, so we could go out of the Ghetto only in daytime. But in the day all the men were in the workshops, which were guarded. At noon we had an intermission for about a half-hour. Around the Ghetto there were a lot of German camps, including the Gestapo, so we had to escape at noon, and during a half hour, cross over with the families and children, about three miles of land covered with snow without running into Germans. Three miles from the Ghetto there was a big forest and we hoped to hide there until night. This was the first problem.
The second problem was even more complicated. Some families had many children and they objected to go out from Ghetto. Those people had a good reason for the objection. It was winter, snow and very cold. To go into the woods with little children in winter meant hundred percent death for the children. They said that if they would wait, maybe the Russians will return to this area and the Germans would not have enough time to kill them. Furthermore the Germans had threatened to kill all of us if somebody would escape, so they objected to anyone escaping, and even watched at night all people suspected of escaping. This was a real complicated problem, which did not have a good solution.
In the meantime we found a way to get guns and ammunition, we arranged a connection with the young teenage boys who escaped and sent them guns and ammunition. We also got guns for ourselves. The method to send ammunition was organized this way: We made two thick wooden boards, which had holes along them. We filled the hole of one board with ammunition and closed it very carefully. The boards had the same measurement as regular boards of a wagon. A farmer who lived near the woods would come once a week to Vilejka and leave the horses with the wagon near the hospital, the wall that was adjacent to the Ghetto. One of us would come to the wall and take out the board from the wagon and put in our board with the ammunition, which looked exactly the same. The farmer would return to his horse and wagon and ride home. The boys would come at night to this farmer and take out the ammunition.
It was March 1943. The Germans still needed us, so we were kept alive. But rumors arrived from all over the area about liquidations of Jewish communities of our area. We knew that the time we had at our disposal to plan was not long any more. We made preparations and plans how to escape, we even got guns. But the problem with the large families remained. Those families didn't like the whole idea of escaping and they made every effort to prevent it. The solution of this problem must come, maybe from heaven, and it did. It was the beginning of the spring. At daytime the sun would shine, but the nights were still very cold. The snow began to melt, but at night the surface would be covered with ice. We had been waiting for the farmer, who would take the "board" once a week. We looked through the window and saw the farmer coming on time. Then we saw one of our people taking the farmer's board and putting ours into the wagon. Ten minutes passed and we saw the farmer come, take his horse and wagon and go away. Everything was perfect as usually. But five minutes passed, and somebody in the workshop shouted, "We are lost! The farmer with the "board" was caught by the Germans". Everybody ran to the window and saw the farmer with his horse going along the street and a policeman was going behind him. The direction was to the Gestapo. It was about 20 minutes before the lunchtime. We consulted quickly what to do and decided to go out of the Ghetto at once. We went out of the workshops and told the families what had happened. We told them to prepare themselves and the children to go out of the Ghetto in five minutes.
We took off the yellow stars, which we wore constantly, we took the little bags, which were prepared and went out from the Ghetto. According to our plan (which was prepared for an occasion of escaping) every two- or three people went in a different direction silently. I went with my father and held his hand. My young brother went with our mother and held her hand. We agreed to meet each other at a certain point in the woods and then continue together. On our way we met some Germans, but they didn't recognize us as Jews and didn't pay attention. First we went along the street and the road. Later we turned across the field. We knew exactly that in twenty minutes (when the intermission in the workshops is over) the Germans would be behind us and hurried on. We were about a half-mile from the forest when we heard the noise of the German cars and motorcycles behind us. They jumped down from their vehicles and ran in our direction shouting and shooting. The distant between the Germans and us got shorter and shorter. When the Germans were about 150 feet from us, some of our people took out their guns and began to shoot at the Germans.
The Germans stopped for several minutes, apparently to organize their pursuit according to the new circumstances. This short stopping allowed us to reach the woods. The Germans continued the pursuit in the forest, shooting from the machine guns and using dogs. Many of us were killed or caught by the Germans. Needless to say that every one of us has a different story of this day. To finish the story briefly I will tell you the results of this action for our family. My father and I arrived at the Partisan's Zone after four days. My mother was killed in this action. It is not clear why the German, who killed my mother, let my brother go (he was then 9 years old). Somehow or other my brother remained alone in the woods. After rambling for four days in the cold woods and without food he was only about one mile from the city of Vilejka. A good farmer found him and gave him to a Jewish partisan from our town. He brought him to us. His whole body was swollen and he was unconscious. Nobody even believed that he would survive. After several weeks he recovered, but only physically. For years he shouted at night and held our father's hand even when he slept. He shouted "Don't leave me alone!" (My brother died in Israel in a work accident, when he was 24 years old in 1958, before I came to Israel. I didn't have an opportunity to see him again after 1944).
To conclude I would say that the escaping, generally, was the least of the evils we could choose. Despite all that had happened, deaths of many people and suffering of many others, there were some positive results of our escaping.
First of all about 60 people out of 100 succeeded to escape in this action and about 50 of them survived after the war. It was a lot, relative to other Jewish communities of our area. Secondly, my cousin and I had the opportunity to be witnesses in a court of the chief of the Gestapo of Vilejka and tell to hundred of young Germans who were present in the hall, what had happened there. Being in Ghetto we didn't believe that even one of us would have the chance to do it.
Finally, the Germans didn't kill the specialists still in Ghetto after our escape. They continued working until the Russians liberated the region. But before the Germans left, they killed all of them. After the liberation we found a letter from one of the victims, which said: "We can already hear the cannonades of the Russian cannons, but we are sure that we will not be alive when the Russian army comes." The same fate was waiting for us. One more question of this story requires an answer: What happened with the farmer and the board with the ammunition? The answer of this question is very simple. - Nothing. Yes nothing. A policeman asked the farmer to take his wife to the hospital. So he brought her to the hospital and then he went home safely with the ammunition