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One Month by Yosef Zucherman
Our escape from the Vileyka labor camp took two days. My wife, my one and a half year-old baby, and I felt a sense of safety when we finally reached the village Andreika. During the escape, we were surrounded three times by the Germans and two-thirds of the escapees were killed. Some were murdered on the road, others were caught alive and taken to a village near the labor camp in Vileyka. There, they were locked up in a barn and burned alive. We were told about this by the farmers of that village. Our route of escape was extremely difficult. We were forced to run through forests and fields and distance ourselves from any paved roads. The earth was covered with snow. We spent a full day hiding in a forest near the Kurenets train station beneath a bush. Miraculously, our little baby remained quiet during the entire day, as if he understood the grave danger of the situation.
One incident I will never forget : during the second blockade as we were surrounded by the German police, we were almost facing The Belarussian soldiers whom we called, "Crows," since they wore black coats and tied gray ribbons to their sleeves. At that point we were in a thick forest, not far from the bridge that connected Vileyka and Molodechno. The "Crows" opened fire with machine guns and rifles. I had a gun in my hands and returned fire. I was carrying my son on my back as if he were a piece of luggage. It was impossible to put him on the ground since there was snow and he might have gotten lost in the dark. At one point when we were running away from the killers, my son raised his arm and turned his face toward the Germans and screamed in their direction, "Hei, hei!" It sounded as if he was saying, "Stop shooting, you sons of bitches, and let us pass!" Still today, I cannot explain how we were once again saved. Immediately, as we lost them, we hid behind a very thick bush.
Our escape started at exactly four o'clock in the afternoon. We went together with Kopel Spector, his brother Eliyau, and his sister, Sarka, may they rest in peace. I want to tell you about them for all the good they had done for us. The escape was very difficult for me and my wife. We had to carry our baby and I asked Kopel, "Don't desert us at this time. Please help us. It is very difficult for us with the baby."
He immediately answered, "Yosef, we will never desert you. We remember all you have done for us." He was talking about the time I helped him buy a gun. Since our escape from the Vileyka camp was unplanned, he didnt have time to take his gun. Until Kopel, Eliyau, and Sarka were killed, they ran with us, and every few minutes, we switched who would carry the baby in their arms. The snow was very deep, and we were running and falling, running and falling. The road was full of bushes and thorns that stuck out of the snow, so the journey was a truly thorny one.
Two days later around midnight, we reached the pushta, the depths of the forest where only wild animals had ever gone before. When we reached the depths of the forest, we met Leizer from Kurenets. He had gotten some food from the village Andreika to sustain his family in their hideout. At this point, we had no idea what life in the forest was like, (if one can even call it life). Leizer took us to the zemlanka (an underground hideout) of Zundel , the son of Israel Alperovitz. "Zundel" was the hideout's "address" in the forest. This hideout was used as a central gathering place in the forest. Since Zundel was a relative of my wife, we decided that that should be the first place we should visit. When we reached the place, I was shocked to see the state of people who lived there: they were in tatters, they had long hair and beards, and their faces had become yellow from sitting all day around a smoky bonfire. I couldn't recognize some of them even thou I have known them all my life. How we looked in their eyes, I don't know. But I remember one thing: our spirits fell tremendously.
When I escaped from the camp, I was wearing boots and galoshes, but when I reached the forest, only one of my feet still had a boot and the other had only a makeshift sock. Zadok Shavetz, the husband of Rushka, saw my situation and gave me another boot. Although it was old, it saved me. I was thinking how we were preparing for the escape from the camp, we gathered clothes and what we thought would be necessary for life in the forest. But our escape was sudden and unlucky and I was not able to take anything. When I heard the Jews' shouting "we were discovered we must escape now" I was at my workplace, I immediately ran to our room, where my wife and baby were, took my family and my gun, and we quickly made our way to the forest.
Zundel's hideout was really a hole in the ground that was covered with branches. There was a storage area that was used for both sleeping and sitting. From the outside, the hideout was covered with dirt. Though originally, the hideout was built by Israel and his sons, now Israel was no longer there. He died in the forest because he refused to eat food that was not kosher and, thus, only ate potatoes. Eventually, he starved to death. I was told about this by Zadok, Rushka and a few other Jews from Kurenitz. We sat together and talked about all that had happened to us during the escape. They gave us something to eat but what was considered food there, I still don't know. They let us sleep on the storage area next to them. One of the daughters was badly wounded from a blockade that the Germans had set up in the forest shortly before we came. They told us that some people were caught when they went to beg for food and were killed. I sat with them, looking around, feeling very depressed from all that I heard. Still, I felt that we were much safer here than we were in the camp.
The next morning, we awoke early. It was difficult to sleep that night because during that night we were covered by lice and we knew we had to be ready for any disaster to happen. The experience of the forest was new to us. As I arose, the first thing that I was told "You have to help us with burying the body". I looked very puzzled so they explained that the wife of Shmuel, the son of Yohoshua, died that night. We buried her nearby. When I came out of the hideout, I looked around and told Zundel that I did not like the location that they have chosen for their hideout. It was sparse with trees. Though they were old pines, they were far away from each other and if you walked through the forest, you could easily be spotted from faraway. As I explained the danger in this situation, he agreed with me but insisted that at that point, it was too difficult to reroute the families. He said "I would wait for two weeks and then transfer them to safer location". I decided to leave immediately.
Since I was new to the forest and didn't know my way around, Zadok told me that he would help me and take me to another hideout in the deeper forest that belonged to Natke Charnas. As he was walking with me, I looked at him in amazement: how was he able to find his way? All the trees looked alike to me! He took me right and left, and again, right and left, as if he was walking through our hometown boulevards. A few days later, I learned the ways of the wood. Every few meters, we put young branches in the ground so one could find his way. First, we walked through the forest and when we reached the edge, the forest was very thick. We went inside Natke Charnas's hideout.
Natke received us very graciously. He was happy to see us and took our little son in his arms and led us to his "inn". The hideout was very deep in the ground and from the outside, you couldn't see a thing. There were stairs that took you down into the ground and inside, there were even fires on which to prepare food, upon which pots of water were boiling. There was a sleeping area and at the corner of the room, there was a small window. This looked like a very decent living space.
During the daytime, we rested and at night, Natke invited us to go with him and his wife to the village to beg for food. My wife left with them and I stayed with the baby. After two days, I also went to beg for food and started my "new line of business". About two weeks had passed in the same routine. Before we left for the village, we would bless each other, "Go in peace, and return in peace." But returning in peace was not as sure as leaving. Going to the villages was a very difficult job. First you had to go a long long way through the forest and you could never use any of the roads. For your safety you had to go through fallen trees, rocks, and boulders, and once you reached the village, you would carefully approach a farm and from the side of the window (never directly in front), always ready for trouble, we would knock on the window and say, in the most pitiful of voices, "Kazain dai fokoushet." Some people would use the word, "Podari." To tell you the truth, I always had trouble with the word, "podari." But after they gave something, I would bless them and thank them.
This was a very difficult way to sustain ourselves. They would give us potatoes and a few pieces of bread and we would return at dawn and immediately start cooking. Salt was a rarity that the farmers refused to give usthey themselves lacked it. Many times, at the end of the meal, we would start feeling extremely hungry, the amount of food was so pitiful. We would sit there for hours, waiting, not knowing what to do or how to spend our time. Sometimes, someone would say, "Be quiet, I think I hear a shot." Our hearts would then fall. "Here! I think I hear another shot!" Sometimes returning from a trip, someone would say that there were Germans in the villages. Other times, someone would say that there were Germans in Kurenets with dogs, getting ready to search the forest. We could find no rest from these horrible rumors: we slept in shifts, someone standing by the beds and someone by the stoves. The hideout was built months ago and couldn't contain all the new comers. As my wife and baby slept, I stood by the stove. Then, my wife would take my place. Sima nee Melzer and her daughter, Rifka Gvint, were very kind to us. Many times, they would give us their sleeping space. The baby would wet the sleeping areas, and we felt bad because of that. But they always dismissed our apologies and said, "This is what babies do normally."
Time passed. We reached Passover 1943 and we wanted to keep kosher. We went to the villages and took some vegetables, but didn't want to take any chumetz. Our hideout was a gathering place for "public prayers". Jews from Neyaka came, Weiner from Lebedove came with his wife Rachel, the daughter of Mendel Kanterovich from Kurenitz. The prayers were done with such intent and emotion. We were celebrating the day of our nation freedom from slavery in Egypt. So many tears were poured during the prayer. One would think that all the tears would have stopped the madness and cruelty. Every one of us said the Kaddish, because everyone was in mourning for someone that year. Oh, how horrible this event was! It will never be forgotten from our hearts. Jews in torn clothes who had almost lost their human image, stood in the dark forest saying Kaddish and the tears spread like a river, begging with their prayers. I thought," God, oh God, hear us I am begging you, but don't just stand there listening, look at us from the heavens and see what has happened to us! " Can any artist paint this picture?
One night, two Jews went to a village. One was Natan son of Mordechai Gurevitch from Kurenets and the other, I can't remember his name. They were neighbors from the same hideout. When morning came, they did not return. Everyone was very worried. Some of us couldn't sleep. Finally, during the day, they came back. They told us that the Christians were very happy to see them and invited them to their homes. They were also celebrating it was Easter. That is why they were so late in returning. Since many of us didn't sleep well, we decided to go back to sleep. My wife and my son fell asleep immediately and I was awake since it was my turn to stand by the stoves.
All of a sudden, the door opened wide and our contact from the partisans came in and screamed, "Schreize passe ," which means, "Quickly, save yourselves! The village is full of Germans!" The village he was talking about was one and a half kilometers from where we were. Everyone jumped out of the sleeping quarters. I immediately took the baby in my arms, did not hesitate for a second, and started running toward the swamps that were near our hideout. We would always build a hideout near a swamp, first for the water and second, so we could hide there during trouble times assuming that the Germans would be afraid to enter the swampy area. We heared shots and we went deeper into the swamp. The shots became more and more frequent and we ran to distance ourselves from them. We ran like ducks in a line for about an hour and all of a sudden, the shots came from the other side. The bullets rang out and the ground thundered under our tramping feet. Some fell on the ground but most continued to run.
While we were running, one of the women running next to us told Rifka Gvint, "Let's get away from this family! They have a baby who might cry and we will be discovered!"
Rifka immediately answered, "I will not desert them. If it is our fate to survive, then the baby will not endanger us." Rifka stayed with us until we reached safety.
My wife at one point was confused and ran toward the bullets. I was crawling with the baby in my arms. Quickly, I ran after her, caught her, held her hand, and immediately took her away from that area to another route and finally we got farther away from the shooting. We continued running further and further and we managed to evade the blockade. Dusk was coming. And for us, this was the moment between life and death, because we knew the Germans would leave the area when it grew dark.
We sent a few people to check the area. They went into the village to find out what had happened. The villagers accepted them "warmly", shouting at them, "Bloody Jews! You are to blame for of all of this! Because of you, they had burned our homes, stolen our things, and sent our sons to Germany! All this because of you!" But did we have any choice? We wanted to survive, so we returned to the villages to ask for bread. Truly, the villagers of that area were greatly tortured during the blockade. The Germans burned their homes, took their cows, and many of their sons were sent to work in Germany. When we found out that the killers had left the area, we decided to find out what had happened to our hideouts.
At that time, the snow was thawing so it was very difficult to walk. All of the lower areas were flooded. We had to trudge through freezing water and we were chilled to the bones. Our teeth were chattering and our feet would get stuck in the mud. We walked for hours till we reached our old hideouts. We found that all the hideouts were destroyed by explosives. From our hideout, there was a long tunnel to be used during dangerous times. That tunnel was also destroyed and all of our belongings were burned. In the hideout of the people from Neyaka, we found bodies, they were not able to escape in time and all except for the daughter of Valah from Neyaka were killed. Valah's daughter was miraculously saved. She held her young boy in her arms when the Germans entered and sprayed the hideout with bullets. One bullet hit the boy's face and his blood spread all over his mother. She lay on the ground with her face covered in her baby's blood. The Germans walked by her and thought that she was dead, but she was only in shock.
During the blockade, everyone who was living in Zundel's hideout was killed. And with them, some other Jews. The story that I have told here is just a little sample of what had happened to us in just one month in the woods. After that month, we stayed another seventeen months in the forest and experienced blockades, a typhus epidemic, many pains and troubles, and every horror and deprivation that no written words can truly describe.