The story of Leah Shogol (nee Gurevitz) z''l
translated by her grandson Tal Shogol
The Concern for Mother’s Fate
1. picture of Leah with brothers Zalman uri and Gershon and parents Batia nee Ushisky and Nathan Gurevitz.
I was born in Kurenitz, a town located in the Vilna region, in West Belorussia. Surrounded by old-growth forests, the town was bravely connected to Russian and Polish Jewry, and between the two world wars, all the Zionist parties and Jewish youth movements were active within it. I was raised in a warm, Jewish Zionist home with my parents and two younger brothers.
My father, Nathan Gurevitz, was a determined Zionist, active for the benefit of the Hebrew school “Tarbut” (culture), represented the Jews at the local council for years and was an active member of the community committee. My father was a constant part of all the Zionist congresses in the Vilna region – as a representative of the general Zionists (Greenbaum faction). I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I would say that father was blessed with a charismatic personality and much wisdom, which therefore made him very influential in town. His dedication to his children was commendable, and thanks to it alone, I have amounted to what I am today.
On the 1st of September 1939, when Hitler attacked Poland, I was a student at a Polish gymnasia in the city of Vileyka, located at a distance of 7-8 kilometres from Kurenitz.
On the 17th of September that same year, the red army entered our region and clearly, all of our lives changed. Our situation wasn’t easy. As the owner of a textile shop, my father was considered an “odd one” – bourgeois –who may not be trusted. We lived in constant fear, afraid we would be sent to Siberia – where all those who were considered “enemies of the regime” were sent in those days. Nevertheless, I continued to study at the same gymnasia, which by then had become a Russian high school. On the 21st of June 1941, I graduated from high school and received my diploma. I planned to continue my academic education, however, the day after graduation, when they announced on the radio that Germany attacked the USSR, all my dreams and plans were shattered by reality. When I heard the news in my room, where I lived during my studies at Vileika, I hurried home to Kurenitz to be with my father and brother. My mother, who was ill, was staying at the “novoyelena” sanatorium near Bernovich.
A few days later, the Germans entered Kurenitz. My brother Zalman fled east together with his friends, but they returned as quickly as they left. They were not allowed to cross over to the USSR, as were others. We started to feel that our world was falling apart. Like all the other Jews of Kurenitz, we were scared and we knew the future holds disasters, but at the time, we couldn’t imagine their extent. Aside this concern, we were troubled by another: we didn’t know what was happening with mother, or where she was. Train traffic was corrupt and Jews were prohibited to travel by train, or by any other means of transport. Father began to look for a gentile who would agree to ride in the cart with him to look for mother, and he was willing to give away all his possessions in order to find her, but all his efforts were in vain. No gentile agreed to the ride in fear of the Germans and we were forced to stay home, sick with worry for mothers fate.
A few weeks later, Zvi Koplovitz, who was a resident of Kurenitz, returned home, and due to his illness, he had stayed at the same sanatorium as mother at the time. He told us that the Germans bombed the sanatorium and the patients ran away in the middle of the night with no possessions. He was stronger than the rest of them and made it back to his family in Kurenitz with his final strengths. According to him, mother was left in Ivie town. It is difficult to describe our pain when we heard the story, and our frustration for not being able to get to mother in Ivie.
At the end of August, a woman from Ivie, who had relatives in Kurenitz, arrived in town, and from her we learned that mother passed away in Ivie from weakness and exhaustion and was given a Jewish burial by local Jews who were still living in their homes, not in the ghetto. We were in shock and pain to hear the sad news. In fact, our good and beautiful mother was one of the first Jewish victims from the area to fall into Nazi hands.
In the meantime, a Judenrat was established in Kurenitz, by order of the Germans. With this, they started sending the Jews, men and women alike, to various jobs in agriculture and services. In this period, thousands of red army soldiers imprisoned by the Germans began to arrive in Kurenitz.
Kurenitz served them as a stopover, in which they spent one night and would move on the day after, broken, weak and sick.
The prisoners were being served by the Jews, among which my brother Zalman, under the observation of the Germans of course. In one of the opportunities I was sent as part of a large group of Jewish men and women to work at the agricultural farm of Luban. During the day we worked together potato picking and in the evening the group would be divided. The men were sent to sleep in one room and the women in another. In the middle of the night, we heard footsteps of German soldiers approaching our room and it didn’t take much imagination to figure out the purpose of their nightly visit to the women’s room. All the women began to look for sand and dirt on the floor they were sleeping on to dirty their faces, so they would look as ugly and unattractive as possible. When they came close, we began to scream as loud as possible and they left, perhaps they were scared of the big crowd over them.
This is when I met the Schnitzer family (Juren today) – Moshyo, Salim and the parents, who arrived to Kurenitz as refugees. I was impressed by the mother’s strength and liveliness, who worked oppressively, providing her family with all the basic needs. It was difficult in those days for all the Jews of Kurenitz, but it was even harder for the refugee families who left their homes empty handed. My brother Zalman quickly befriended the two sons of the Schnitzer family, and this friendship continues until today.
Among the local policemen, who were known for their “diligence” in searching and terminating Jews, was the most “famous” officer Sharangovich. Any Jew in the area would shiver just by the mention of his name.
Our family had a gentile friend named Yushkevich, who was an anti-Nazi and a decent man. I escaped and hid in his house a few times during searches and roundups.
Until September 1942 there were two roundups in which the Germans had killed several Jews.
Father Builds Hiding Places
The belt around the Jews of Kurenitz began to tighten. Everyone knew and sensed that the end was near and they all started preparing hiding places from the Germans and policemen.
My father was very concerned for his children, as any good father would be, and made a hiding place for us in the farm of our aunt , Pesia Alperovitz. We found out very quickly that the hiding place wasn’t any good, since it was located above the hiding place of a printing house’s equipment. This printing house was formed right after the occupation by a group of young men, among which my brother Zalman, to fight the Germans.
All the while I knew of the existence of this underground printing house, that it was used for printing manifestos for the local non-Jewish population, even though I wasn’t part of it myself. I saw how worried and scared my father was for my brother Zalman’s activity and I didn’t want to add to his worry.
My father spent a long time planning a new hiding place for our family, that would be useful at a time of need. Eventually, he built a hiding place, or a “little dam” as we called it, in the attic of the building adjacent to ours. Father added a wall and did all kinds of renovations on the outside so as not to attract the neighbours’ attention and so nothing will be seen. We were to enter the hiding place using a ladder which we had to lift up and bring inside after the last of us entered. We equipped the hiding place with all the essentials such as bed utensils, food and drink.
My brother Zalman left town in the spring of 1942 and joined the partisans along with two other young men, Eliyahu Alperovitz and Nahum Alperovitz, and a young woman, Bertha Dimenstein. After a while my brother returned – after their group was besieged, crowded and scattered around. Eliyahu Alperovitz was killed in this battle. It took some time before my brother managed to contact his group again.
One night, three days before Rosh Hashanah of 1942, a large traffic of vehicles caught our neighbour’s attention, the father of Rivkah Alperovitz (today Gilat). From this we concluded that a “roundup” was about to start, meaning the final extermination of the Jews of our town – Kurenitz. Father woke us up and rushed us to get dressed quickly. The Alperovitz family, Rivkah and her parents, joined us. My brother Zalman and Rivkah’s brother, also named Zalman, didn’t want to hide in the hiding place, so they ran through the fields, hoping to get away from the Germans, who had already besieged the town. My father, my younger brother Gershon, who was 13 at the time, and myself, as well as Rivkah Gilat and her parents, climbed up the hiding place and lifted the ladder after us, so as not to leave traces. We left the house doors wide open so the policemen would think we escaped hastily.
The roundup began. Through the cracks of the hiding place’s wooden wall we could see and hear how the Jews were being taken out of their homes. We heard the screams, the devastating cries of the children and mothers. Later, we could smell the scorched bodies and we fully understood what this meant. We heard the Germans, and especially the local policemen, who came looking for us at our house and in the nearby buildings. We held our breath and buried our heads under the blankets and fortunately, they didn’t notice our existence behind the double, concealed wall. We hid there, six people, for one day, one night and another day. The second night my father came to the conclusion that it was too dangerous to keep hiding there. According to the silence around us, we understood that the roundup was over. That night, we came down using the ladder, we crossed the yard without entering our house and ran away through the fields towards Borodino Village, where the farmer Yushkevich lived, a family friend.
In the Woods
While we were still in our hiding place, we decided that if we were to separate, we would all meet at Yushkevich’s house. Through a very difficult route we got to Yushkevich’s house and knocked on the door. He was very frightened by everything that was happening in Kurenitz, but we were happy to hear from him that my brother Zalman and the boys had been at his house half an hour earlier and he directed them to the woods. He didn’t bring us inside though, as he was afraid of the Germans, but he guided us to a place in the woods where, according to him, we could hide for a while. Dawn was breaking and he hurried to distance himself from us. Without realizing it at the time, our life in the forest had in fact begun. We sat in silence all day long and when it became dark we heard footsteps approaching. It was Yushkevich who came and brought us food, only carrots actually. Fresh, juicy, sweet carrots which he picked in his field. After several days of waiting in the woods, which was at a distance of only 3-4 kilometres from Kurenitz, we heard whispers and we assumed it was the voices of local shepherds.
After a few moments we heard footsteps coming near and then we discovered, to our delight, that they were the footsteps of my brother Zalman. He came accompanied with a few other young men who ran away from Kurenitz when the roundup started, among them were Salim and Moshyo Schnitzer. My brother Zalman went with Salim to the village Volkovishtzena in order to make connections with the partisans. Unfortunately, he found no one from his group. They all went to “Vostok” (east), meaning Eastern Belorussia.
Our group increased. Occasionally we were joined by another person who managed to escape the defeated town. Yushkevich brought us a bucket for cooking, flour, salt and a wooden spoon, and so once a day, we were able to eat hot soup made of water, flour and salt. We called this soup “Zachirka”. We took turns in eating it with the one and only spoon we possessed. We were about 20 people gathered there in the forest. After about 3 weeks, we came to the conclusion that it’s dangerous for such a big group to stay at such a proximity to Kurenitz. We decided to head farther away towards the Pushcha – the vast old-growth forests around Malkevichi village. We headed out. We walked only at night and on side tracks. After many adventures, sufferance and fear, we arrived in Pushcha, we met other Jews from Kurenitz there who had also managed to escape the roundup.
Autumn had come. The cold was bone-chilling. We would sit around fires in worn-out clothes not knowing what tomorrow brings. We heard that groups were crossing the borderlines to the USSR and we also decided to cross the German borders and to move east, deeper into USSR territory. Russian partisans showed up in the woods, who were supposed to lead us on our journey to the east by foot. They divided us into two groups. My family and I were in the second group. We began the journey and made quite a long distance, when suddenly fire opened on us from several directions and bullets where whistling everywhere. We had no choice but to run back to the forest which we came from. We thought we were being ambushed.
We gathered again in Pushcha. The days had already become cold autumn days. We settled in this forest because we had no choice. We found a suitable place, near the swamps and the men built tents from tree branches. In each tent stayed one family, or a few families who were in close relations.
The worry for everyday existence and especially the concern for food supply, became the centre of our lives. In the evening, the group members would scatter around the nearby villages, knock on the residents’ doors, and those would give them a few potatoes or bread, if they were lucky. Each one of these times we left the forest was a huge risk and demanded great physical effort. I was one of the lucky ones who seldom went to collect food. I lived with my family, and my father, who cared for me very much, tried to spare me the trouble and danger that arose from each of these outings. He would go himself to every possible place and took care of bringing food to his family, even if it were the smallest of amounts.
Winter came. One morning we woke up covered in snow that penetrated the branches that served as the tent walls. Everyone realized we needed to build an underground shelter, to protect us from the cold and the snow. Not an easy job considering the complete lack of tools and little experience in works of this sort. We had no choice but to all undertake this difficult job –and in the end we built a zemlyanka – a primitive underground structure. During the first winter we were 16 people living in the zemlyanka. More than once did the crowdedness and difficult conditions create tension and arguments between us. We survived the tough winter until the 30th of April 1943.
The Germans Surround the Woods
That same day, our contact man called Vintzuk came to us early in the morning from Margi, the village nearby, and informed us that the Germans were on their way and surrounding the woods in search of Jews and partisans. We jumped over our benches, dressed quickly and ran towards the swamps. The Germans were already in the woods and we had no other choice but to go in to the deep swamps. We scattered everywhere searching for proper hiding places. I myself hid in the mud and water between two large bushes, with only my head left out. From each direction, I heard the Germans shooting in our direction all day long. The shooting quieted down only towards the evening and I heard the rattling of the Germans’ cars driving away. I understood that at that point the Germans were leaving us alone.
I looked around and at a distance I saw Rivkah Gabinet (Dodik today) with her mother. With a great deal of effort we got out of the swamp and we started walking together towards our zemlyanka. We arrived there late in the evening and discovered everything was destroyed, there was no recollection of our zemlyanka.
All those who stayed alive arrived throughout the night. The day after we left the place and built tents at a more distant location, deep in the woods. Spring came, and summer soon after. In order to deceive the Germans and their informers, we moved around occasionally and built a sort of camp in different locations.
It was in this period that Russian partisans started showing up in the woods. The Jewish young men wanted to join the partisan unit very much, but they had many difficulties. The partisans demanded they have weapons as a condition to join the combat unit. In the spring of 1943, my brother Zalman joined the Plotnikov group – which later became an integral part of the second brigade of “Soborov”. There is where he met my future husband, Gabriel Shogol, who was a partisan in that same brigade. We saw my brother Zalman rarely, when he occasionally came to visit us from his partisan unit.
In the end of summer 1943, we moved elsewhere, about 15 kilometres from there, north-west, close to Zajiria village, not far from Markov’s partisan brigade.
In September 1943, the Germans attacked once again and casted a blockade on all the towns in the area. We were constrained to run to the swamps again. This time we suffered more because the siege lasted about 10 days. We had nothing to eat and we survived on red grains that grew on the bushes around us. The grains were very bitter but we chewed them constantly and calmed the hunger down that way.
When the Germans’ shooting ceased and we heard their vehicles driving off – we left the swamps and went back to the place we abandoned. It was on the eve of Yom Kippur, and I remember the pre-fast meal we prepared from a few potatoes that were left there.
Autumn came and winter followed. We built a zemlyanka again in another place in the forest. At the time Shura Bogin’s mother-in-law lived with us at the zemlyanka, who was the commander of the Jewish partisan group. The place wasn’t too far away from the “Proizvodsevania Grupa” (the professional group) sometimes we would visit them and some of the group would come to our zemlyanka. This is how we met Moshe Kalcheim and many others. We made connections and friendships which were very helpful, especially socially.
Struck by a Snake
The spring of 1944 had begun. One morning I went to wash our clothes with Freda Yablonovsky, who lived with us and later became my sister-in-law (she married my brother Zalman).
About 200 meters from where we lived was a small river – a type of water source. When I approached the water I felt a strong sting on the sole of my foot. For a moment I thought I had stepped on a thorn barefoot, but after a few seconds I felt my leg was almost paralyzed and I couldn’t move. Freda left me there and ran to get father. A few other men came besides my father and carried me to the zemlyanka. They lay me down, as my leg kept swelling from the foot upwards. After a few hours my face, lips and mouth had swollen up, till my tongue had no room and hung out of my mouth. Everyone had agreed that it was a snake strike but no one knew how to help me, and everyone started giving my father different advice. Among which we were told that in the nearby village there is a local woman – a gentile, who uses special blessings on bread, and this “holy” bread works “miracles”. Without thinking twice my father went to the village in search of the woman, even though he was a modern man and didn’t believe in “spells” or “miracles”. But as a drowning man clutching at straws, my father felt he had nothing to lose. Towards the evening, he fed me the “holy” bread, crumb by crumb, since I was unable to open my mouth because of the swelling. Someone from our group (until today I don’t know who it was) went to the neighbour partisan group that had a doctor and brought me several pills, whose effect was unclear to all of us. They dissolved one pill in water and gave me the medicine with a spoon. The rumour of the incident spread and people from around came to the zemlyanka to see me. A Russian partisan came in and when she saw me she said ”nothing more will become of her”. She added that in her opinion I was as good as dead. She was sure I was unconscious but I understood everything and was unable to talk from the swelling.
I’m not sure what helped me, whether it was the doctor’s medicine, the peasant’s “holy bread”, or both, but fortunately, at exactly midnight I began to feel better. My tongue became soft and more flexible and began to shrink and a few hours later it was back in place in my mouth. The swelling in the face also calmed down but my leg caused me many problems. I couldn’t walk for a very long time – I was in great pain and limped noticeably. Even after the war when I was about to be wed, my limp was still noticeable and disappeared after some time.
It was then in the beginning of the summer of 1944 that the tension increased. Notices started to arrive of the break and retreat of the German army, and with this they were killing the partisans and obviously the Jews living in the forests. The atmosphere was very tense and we considered building a shelter in the woods in case the Germans would pass by our hideouts during their retreat. But we didn’t do it since the partisans and the red army didn’t allow us. In the beginning of July 1944 we heard that Vileyka was set free. We stayed in the woods a few days with mixed emotions – joy and happiness that we survived this horrible time and were free, and fear that something tragic might happen in the very last days.
Back to the Ruins of Kurenitz
On the 10th of July 1944 my father, my brother Gershon and I went back to Kurenitz. The local gentiles couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw us healthy and in one piece. They had quickly grown accustomed to the idea that there were no Jews in Kurenitz and all of a sudden, we showed up from between the woods. They looked like they had seen a ghost. The town was completely burned down. Our house was one of the only ones left whole and a foreign Christian family – not from Kurenitz – was staying in it. At first they didn’t know us and didn’t want to allow us to come in. Eventually they let us in together with them.
We stayed in Kurenitz for a very short time and moved to Smorgon, where my brother Zalman was staying with Gabriel Shogol - my future husband, who was also a partisan and an officer in the second Soborov brigade. It wasn’t hard for me to leave Kurenitz. The horrible memories and the pain we suffered in the town made it easy to leave. There were some decent Christian residents who were pro Jews such as Bakach and Igenella Birok. The rest followed the Nazi regime shamefully and anxiously waited for the termination of the Jews in order to get their hands on their possessions. We contacted Yushkevich, the gentile who helped us during the difficult time after the roundup and brought food for our large group of Jews for several weeks.
We helped him as much as we could, we kept in touch with him for a long time and even form Israel, we sent him packages.
I was married in Smorgon in 1944 to my husband Gabriel Shogol. In 1945 our eldest son Baruch was born. In May 1946 we moved to Poland as part of the Repatriation. In Poland we lived in Wroclaw, where my husband served in a senior government job till 1951, when he returned to work in his profession – law.
In 1957 we made Aliyah to Israel with the extended family, after the birth of our youngest son Michael. My husband Gabriel Shogol RIP, passed away in the holy land in 1974. My father, Nathan Gurevitz, who lived in Kefar Saba, lived a long life and passed away at a ripe old age in 1985, surrounded by loving children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
2. Leah after the war.
3. Leah's Husband: Gavriel Shogol z"l
4. Leah's son Miki and Family with cousin Avner Gorev and family