|Kurenets Home Page|
|Kurenets Stories Menu|
The Struggle to Survive
On the Road
Three days after the Germans invaded Russia, my family, like many other Jews in town, ran away east toward the old USSR border. After encountering many difficulties on the road and being turned away at the border, we decided to return to Kurenets. My wife and child returned directly with other women and children. My good friend, Leib Putrpas and I, decided not to return immediately because we believed that the women and children would be spared by the Nazis, however the young men would be castigated. We decided to return using a longer, more secluded route. During the late afternoon, we reached the little town of Krivitz. We entered at a fateful moment, immediately after the gentiles from the town and the surrounding villages raided the Jews and their homes. As soon as we entered the town, we were caught by some Polish police who were now working for Germans. They beat us severely; their punches were brutal and exact. As soon as they were done with us, they were planning to take us to the German authorities to be put in a POW camp. They continued to beat us mercilessly as a group of German soldiers came to the area, looking for people to clean some barns nearby. One of the soldiers approached me and asked me to identify myself and explain what I was doing there. I made up a hasty story that we were imprisoned by the Russians and that we had quickly escaped and wanted to return to our homes, and that we didn't know why the townspeople were beating us. He ordered us to come with him. As he was taking us to the stable, he noticed one of the town homes where all the doors were open. He entered and stole a record player and some records, ordering me to carry the record player and Leib Putrpas to carry the records. As we continued, he saw another home and decided to steal something there too. We were ordered to wait outside. We decided to run away. We set the stolen goods on the ground and quickly made our way to the fields behind the house.
Evening came and it was growing dark. After a long walk, we asked one of the farmers where we were and he told us that we were near Neyaka, a small village about 10 kilometers from Kurenets. Many of the Jewish residents of Neyaka were involved in business with and had relatives in our town. We decided to rest for a bit until we felt better. We were badly injured and we hadn't eaten for awhile, and we were exhausted. Leib Putrpas knew an old man, named Valah, who lived in Neyaka. He wore a long, white beard, and walked with a limp. Valah was well known all over the region as a most gracious host and as a man of noble spirit.
The village, Neyaka, was small and we found Valah's house with no difficulty. Frightened and in pain, we heard of what was happening in Neyaka. Valah told us that a few days earlier the Germans had come to the synagogue and thrown out the Torah books, and now the Jews are sitting on their luggage ready to run, but nobody knows where to go. The Christian villagers avoided them like the plague, and at best, they treated them as if they were total strangers.
"Don't worry children," Valah said, "God will not desert us. The main thing to concern us with right now is your safety. Go in the barn and sleep on the hay. Tomorrow, we will see what we can do for you."
Only then, when we lay on the fresh hay, did we feel the extreme exhaustion and horrible pain that the beatings from Krivitz had caused us. The wounds burned like fire, and it was impossible to fall asleep. Our clothes stuck to our open wounds and we turned from side to side trying to alleviate the pain until the morning came. At the break of dawn, we heard the birds chirping and we smelled the wonderful scent of freshly cut fields.
Valah couldn't sleep either. He was very concerned about us and got up very early to see how we were. We heard the sound of someone walking with a limp, and realized that it must be him. "Good morning!" he greeted us cheerfully, and announced that we would get porridge to satiate our hunger. We were very excited, for it had been days since we had last eaten like normal human beings. Now that the morning light came, Valah saw that we were hurt. He saw our bruises and immediately ran home. He brought his daughter, who carried a pail of hot water, back with him. They peeled off our bloody boots and shirts. The pain was unbearable since the clothes were sticking to our bodies. They then started washing and feeding us as though we were babies. Valah would encourage us in good spirits, "Eat, children, eat! We must gather our energy so that we can dance when the enemy is annihilated. You know that they took the Torah's from the synagogue and desecrated it. You will see that God will not take it quietly."
We asked him if he knew anything about what was happening in Kurenets. He said that it was impossible to have any contact with other towns as no one could come or go anywhere. "You need some more courage, my children," he said, "Big troubles have come to the nation of Israel; we must stay strong to overcome them. Lie down and get your strength back for a few days, and then we will see what you should do."
He covered us in more hay, and we started feeling more energetic and rested.
Through that time, other Jews started coming to visit us, asking what was going on in other towns. We told them about the troubles in the neighboring towns. Nevertheless, Valah told us not to worry, and kept saying, "We must fast and ask for forgiveness. In the history of our nation, we have known bigger troubles than this and we still see miracles and salvation." The Germans, who were camping in the train station in Kanahanina, started coming to Neyaka to scare and rob the few Jews who lived there. We realized that there was much danger here too, and one of these days we would get caught and receive a similar reception as we did in Krivitz. Thankfully, we were able to escape from there, but we felt that now we were out of miracles.
In the Homes of Israel, there is no light.
It had been months since we had left our town, and it seemed like the Germans were winning one victory after the next. We kept asking ourselves, "Is there no force that can stand up to the Germans? Where are the Russian Katyushas, Vanyushas, and all the other renowned weapons that the public constantly heard of?"
After consulting each other and Valah, we decided to leave for Kurenets. We left at night with heavy feet and heavy hearts. A heavy rain fell and drenched our clothes. Finally, we reached the hills of Belashi. From afar, we could hear the sound of the carpentry mills of Zokofsky. From another direction, we could hear the dogs barking in the village of Poken. There in the valley was our town. Occasionally you could see light in one of the windows, yet not one light from a Jewish home. In the homes of Israel, there was no light.
Our hearts were beating fast with excitement. Soon we would see our dear ones; my baby boy, my wife, and the rest of my beloved family. But how difficult it was to return to our hometown crawling on barbed wire as if we were some kind of criminals escaping prison! The farmers had already cut and stacked the hay, as if no war was happening at all. All this excitement made me forget my wounds and pain for a while.
I approached the alley and waited for the German patrol to distance themselves before I crossed the street. I reached my in-law's window and knocked on the shutter quietly. My mother in-law woke up and asked, "Who's there?"
I answered her, whispering, "It's me, your Velvale." She woke up my father-in-law and asked him to go see.
All the commotion woke my wife, and she approached the window and said excitedly but controlled, "Mother, Volvol is here!" After receiving many hugs, kisses, and tears, I went into the bedroom. I stood next to my sons bed. Through the illumination of a candlelit bottle, I saw my sleeping baby. He was sleeping with a little smile on his face, as if he were greeting me from his dreams. We decided that I must not be seen, and that even the child shouldn't see me fearing that he might tell someone of my arrival through baby talk.
There was a Christian man in town who was called the Parifa, since all of his torn clothes were connected by parifas, instead of patches. After we left, he had become the governor of Kurenets, and we had to be very careful.
I hid in the basement, amongst the many healing herbs that my father in-law used to deal with. The next morning my mother came from her home in Myadel Street to visit the baby, and was very excited to hear of my return. She fell on me crying, saying, "My son! My son! The only son who is still left in town!" Her cries woke up the baby and I had to immediately run back to the hiding place.
I looked at my son from a hidden corner and I heard him talk to other children outside the door. He said, "My daddy will come and bring me a little horse."
From then on, mother came to visit me daily and bring news. She was very sure that God would not leave us. She said "Rosh Hashanah is approaching, and God would bless us with a good year." My little sister, Chanaleh, started coming every evening after a day of hard labor, and she tried to cheer me up. I also kept in touch with my friend, Leib Patrapas, by writing letters to him. Life continued peacefully until the week of Simchat Torah.
A few days prior to Simchat Torah, I decided to start sleeping in my own bed every night. The town had settled to a certain routine, and it seemed relatively quiet. This was during the time that most people worked in labor camps, thinking that by doing so, the German authorities would spare them. The baker, Abraham, would come to visit me in my hiding space once a week. He would sit on a haystack and smile to me, saying, "People are telling me that this German business will last for a few hours, or days at most in my opinion, it's a matter of weeks." Abraham told wonderful tales, and I enjoyed listening to him. He told me "fairytales" and I wanted him to continue with the stories because the tales he told me encouraged me and encouraged him. Mother would pat my back and say, "You see, my son? You are so depressed. Cheer up and have faith like Abraham has." She told me this every time she left our house, encouraging herself that good days were still to come.
One time, my son, who still didn't know that I was there, lay in his little bed, I kissed him and immediately left for the hiding place. The child woke up and said, "Who kissed me?" My wife answered that it was Grandpa. My two and half year old answered, "It couldn't be Grandpa. Grandpa's beard is not prickly. Maybe it's daddy." I heard him from my hiding place and tears came to my eyes. My wife continued trying to make him go back to sleep while singing a lullaby of hope and happiness. One morning while I was sleeping in the house, the boy asked to sleep with my wife in my bed. He immediately recognized me and we met for the first time since Id left town. He hugged me tightly and clung to me. We all cried with happiness and he said to me, "Now I know that a few days ago it was you who kissed me and not Grandpa. You have a prickly beard and Grandpa does not."
All of a sudden the child jumped up and said, "Daddy, run away, the Germans are coming." My wife got scared and told me, "Little children are very sensitive. There is light outside. Take your boots and hide." In just a few minutes, we heard knocks on the doors, windows, and everywhere. I was trying to get out of the house through the window that was facing the yard. Pelvic, Parifa, and Beetah from Vileyka Street, who now worked for the Germans, saw me, therefore now there was no way I could run.
Simchat Torah, 1942.
My father in-law opened the door and let them enter. My son started crying, begging me to carry him. They ordered me to immediately get dressed and go to the police station. They said, "You never registered with the police and you are escaping from doing your share of hard labor."
All the begging and crying didn't help. They only gave me enough time to put some healing pads on my ear, which was still hurting a lot from the beating I got in Krivitz. The police department was very close to our house. It was located next to the house of Eetzah Chaizes (Yitzhak Zimerman) where the stores of Eetzka the husband of Lea and Hirsha- Mendel the tailor used to be. When I entered the police station, I saw a policeman taking Zalman Kasdan, the husband of Chaya-Tzertel. Zalman himself was from Globoki. We greeted each other by silently shaking our heads. From the expression on his face, I could see that he was very surprised to see me there.
Sokolovsky, the assistant to the head of the police from Vileyka Street, had yellow hair that stuck out like a porcupine. He greeted me mockingly, "How are things in Moscow? You must have just returned from there." While talking, he started hitting me hard right in the head.
I told him, "Kasick, what are you doing? You're hitting me? We went to the same school, we sat on the same bench. What troubles did I ever cause you? I always gave your father jobs to take supplies to Vileyka."
He answered, "I am not the same friend from school. Go to the next room and wait for the policeman, Ezaivitz. He has many many things to talk to you about."
Ezaivitz was a farmer. His farm was located a short distance from Kurenets. He was a one-eyed man. He lost his other eye in a drunken brawl. They took me to a room with a window, next to which was a big piece of plywood that was used to darken the room at night during the bombing. After a few minutes, they brought Kasdan back through the room on the way to a third room that was now used as a prison. When they opened the door to let Kasdan in, I saw that there were many Jewish people in the room. This looked very ominous to me. The movement amongst the police was very rapid. They kept running from one place to another, bringing more and more people. They brought Velvel, the son of Asher the haberdasher, they brought Zalman Gelman from Kosita street. Here to my room, they brought Esther Charnas and David kapilovitz, the tailor. They brought the father in-law of Moshe Markman and then they brought Nachum, the son of Michael and Pesia Alperovich. Everyone who they brought after Esther Charnas they left in the first room, Sokolovsky room.
Next to me stood a policeman, it was the son of Zusya, the one who brought water to the town's homes. All her days, she worked for us and her son was almost raised in our house. I was waiting for the officer to come. Meanwhile, I saw that many Christians were standing in the market as if they were waiting for something to happen, watching the police headquarters. I saw the son of Yadviga running in haste and bringing shovels. I saw the prior head of the post office that was very friendly with us at one time. When he saw me, he said to the son of Zusya, "Watch him very carefully. This bird is capable of escape and can fly through the windows."
Next, they took out from the prison room Shimon Lieb, Baruch Kremnick, and Asher, the son of Yehoshua Alperovich. We greeted each other, and they all looked at me with amazement. They thought I had escaped to Russia long ago and didn't understand why I would come back. All of a sudden, I sow the Christian mob outside running in panic. A big group of Germans riding on motorcycles was approaching the police headquarters. One German, tall and nervous, with many badges that I did not recognize, entered the room. From his manners, I knew that he was a high officer. He asked me if I was a Communist. I answered that I had nothing to do with Communism and never had anything to do with Communism and that I was simply waiting for the head of the police to return. The German officer left the room and the two watchmen, who did not speak German asked me what the German officer had told me, I said "he asked me to stay for now, but he will let me go soon." This must have left some impression on them because they left me and went to the front room. Outside there was some commotion. They brought a lot of shovels and axes and other tools.
Another German man entered the room. He was fat with a flat nose, he wore shiny boots with skulls on them. Right behind him, entered Mataras, the mayor of Kurenets. They were going to discuss something privet and didn't want me there so they put me in the third room, the prison room where many people from Kurenets were crowded in. The heat in this room that was only two and one half meter wide was unbearable. I stood right next to the door. The people in the room immediately asked what I had seen outside. I answered, "My dears, whoever knows what to say will say it." Still I was persuaded to tell them about all the commotion that I saw through the window, I spoke about the German officers who came, and about the shovels, they carried. Zalman Kasdan interrupted me saying, "Why are you spreading unneeded panic here? It must be that the partisans blew up some bridge and they will take us to fix it." Shimon Leib said, "How could anyone comprehend such horrible idea that they will take, just like this, innocent people and murder them?" Chaim Zukovski, who was totally exhausted and could hardly stand on his feet, said in a broken voice, "My dear people, David Motosov once told me of what he had seen when he ran away from the occupied areas of Poland prior to June. I will believe anything. I believe that the Germans are capable of the most evil crimes." Asher, the son of Yehoshua, said, "If they will really take us to be killed, we must try to escape. Maybe someone will be saved." Others were sitting and reciting passages from the Bible. A few were sitting quietly with a frozen expression on their face.
I felt that I was going to choke so I started banging on the door saying that I need to go to the bathroom. Betar from Vileyka Street came in. He took me outside and held his rifle pointing at me ready to shoot if I try to escape. I was taken to the yard next to our house. I looked if someone from my family is around. Thinking that at least, I can look at them for the last time. I started begging Betar, "You must let me run. I know you are going to kill us. Take the thousand rubbles that I have and release me. I had never hurt anyone." He refused, but still took my money. I kept begging him "please let me run and shoot after me and explain to the Germans that I ran and you were shooting" but he would not be convinced.
It was a beautiful day, a sunny day, and the morning of Simchat Torah that always filled our town with singing and dancing. Now, I was walking right next to my home with a death sentence hanging over my head. There was no place to escape to. Everywhere we were surrounded by barbed wire. Now Betar was taking me back to the police headquarters. Betar wanted to take me back to the prison room. I told him, "Why are you doing this? I am supposed to wait for Ezaivitz and the German officer." No talk helped. With a kick, he threw me back in the room. After a few minutes, I started banging on the door again. A different policeman came. I immediately put my foot in the open space between the door and the frame so he couldn't close it. I said, "Please permit me to go out and get some water. I must take my valerian pills. I am dying." He refused, I pushed my way out of the room while begging. "You must let me take my pill and then you can put me back in this room."
Now I was in the room where I had stood before. The policeman accepted the fact and brought me some water. All around was commotion, and the policeman did not return. Through the window, I saw him walking with a German officer holding a box. Now I was in a room with the people who came with Esther Charnas. Many thoughts and ideas came to my head. I thought of tricks and ways to get out of there, but I couldn't find a real solution. Again, I looked at the big plywood and decided to hide behind it. I asked everyone in the room to stand next to the plywood to hide the opening between the wood and the wall and they all did it. I made myself very little sitting behind the plywood. I heard the sounds of the steps of the Germans entering. The door of the prison opened and I heard them counting eight people to take out. Again, they counted eight people and took them out. Each time, they counted eight. Nachum, the son of Pesia nee Kastrel and Michael Alperovich, who was standing at the edge of the plywood whispered to me that they took out Ruben, the tailor, Asher the son of Yehoshua Alperovich, and Zalman Gelman amongst other. Then he told me that they gave them shovels and they took them to Kosita Street. He said they were surrounded by many German guards. After a few minutes, Nachum said that they were taking the families of the people who were imprisoned in the room. They took their Parents, wives, and children. I quickly glanced out of the window fearing that some of my family would be there, but I did not see them. I prayed that they would have run away in time. Once more, the Germans entered and took the rest of the people from the prison room. First, they took them to the market, then they took them to Kosita street. I hid behind the plywood wondering what my end would be like. Soon, I thought they would come and get me. I kept pondering about the tragic fate awaiting me.
All of a sudden, I heard the tone of Ezaivitz voice. He announced Esther Charnas's name, and ordered her to go to the front room. There he ordered her to lie on the bench. She begged for pity but to no avail. She was thrown on the bench and they started hitting her with a whip. I heard the counting of the Germans and her screams, first very loud, then very mute. She must have fainted. Soon afterward, I heard them throwing her outside the building. They did the same to almost everyone in the room. I decided that it would be much better to be whipped than to be killed. Therefore, without much thinking, I stood at the end of the line to be whipped. Next, they thrashed another man who fainted immediately, and was thrown out. All of a sudden, Ezaivitz who had only one functioning eye managed to recognize me. He started screaming, "What are you doing here?" He gave me a powerful kick and threw me back in the prison room. Locking the door behind.
I was alone in the room. Now I knew that my fate had been nailed. Soon, they would kill me. From afar, I could hear shooting. It was perfectly clear to me that right now the people who had sat in this room half an hour ago, the residents of Kurenets, my neighbors and friends, were lying in their own pool of blood. I heard echoes of what they had said in this room. I heard Kasdan saying, "They are taking us to fix a bridge." Shimon Leib saying, "How could it be that they would take innocent people and kill them?" Chaim Zukovski saying, "They are capable of anything." I could still hear the passages from the Bible and Asher son of Yehoshua saying "lets try to escape". Most of these people were raised together with me, we were like one big family since early childhood and now they were lying there lifeless. I was so worried that my family was with them. Could my little boy who warned me, "Daddy run away the Germans are coming," be with them? I was looking for something in my pockets to commit suicide with. I wanted to die by my on hands, but I couldn't find a thing. I decided to use my belt. I tried to reach the window, but the window was very high, almost to the ceiling. So I closed the door from the inside and tried to connect the belt to the door handle. The other side of the belt I put around my neck.
All of a sudden, I heard knocks on the door. I didn't open it, but I couldn't commit suicide without opening the door. They broke the door and saw me with the belt around my neck. They brought with them more prisoners. Yechezkel Zimerman (Charles Gelman), Chaim Yitzhak Zimerman, Tuvia Sosensky, Shmuel Blinder (son of Pisel), Moshe Mordechai Peretz, and a few more who's names I cannot remember. They were just brought there from Luban, where they worked in the agricultural farm.
When the police left, the new comers told us that Arka, the son of Ruben, (Revka Teiba's Alperovich) from Myadel Street attacked one of the policemen taking them and ran to the fields. However, the Germans shot after him and managed to kill him. We all agreed that it was a much better way to die than to wait for them to kill us. Shmuel Blinder, the son of Pesach, took out a small Sidur. He read passages from it. We all repeated it after him. We excepted that any minute they would come to take us but we had waited there for a long time and we could see that dusk was coming. Finally, we heard heavy steps. The door opened and Sokolovsky, the assistant to the head of police, came in. He had red eyes from years of being drunk, he said, "Today you are the lucky ones. For now, you are all staying alive." He looked at me and said, "You are particularly lucky. You have escaped death for now. But you won't escape forever." He told us to leave. He asked if we have any valuable things to give him. However, we had nothing.
We all hastily left the death room. Outside it was getting dark. We went through the fields. There was total silence around us. There was not one lit window, one other person walking. I hid behind the houses of Shmuel Eetzi and Artzik the son of Gutza Dinerstien. Moshe Mordechai Peretz joined me, we hid there until there was total darkness. I entered the house of Yosef Alperovich, the son of Mendel Chezkales'. His wife, Leah, the daughter of the Maizel family, was my wife's best friend since early childhood. She fell on my neck kissing me and crying and told me while sobbing who was killed today. I asked her nervously what had happened to my family and to my great relief she told me that the police came to take them but they managed to run away prior to their arrival. Leah couldn't stop sobbing. She wanted to give me something to eat but I could not eat anything I just wanted to go see my family. They didn't let me. Yosef said that he must go first to check the road to my house to make sure it is safe. He went through the gardens and when he returned he said that my family had just returned home. Crawling all the way, I managed to reach my house. I found out that my son was hidden behind the cowshed of our Christian neighbors covered with branches and bushes and like that, he lied there the entire day. My wife hid in the fields. My mother, when she sow me, fainted from excitement. Everyone was sure that I had been taken to my death. Again, days of hiding came.
The winter of 1942 was extremely cold but that only made us feel happy imagining the troubles that the Nazis were having in the frozen battlefields. Therefore, although it was very difficult for us, considering we didn't have any firewood for our furnaces, we still prayed to God that more snowstorms would come. Rumors started that the killers had retreated from the battlefields. The Jews who worked for the train station would bring us the good news. They would say that large amount of supplies are going west, meaning they are retreating. The villagers were ordered to clean the snow from the roads and to put yellow sand on the ground. All the Jews were ordered to do this even during the night. They would work nonstop. The police were very cruel. They would beat them mercilessly. Still, in our hearts we were full of hope reasoning that like Haman, that was destroyed in Purim, this would be the fate of our current enemy.
This was how the very religious among us thought. Many of the orthodox Jews would fast every Monday and Thursday reciting Tehilim passages and waiting impatiently for Purim to come.
There was a big letdown and dreadful sadness when Purim had finally arrived, that was the day that the Nazis killed the residents of our sister town Vileyka, the few who survived the first actzia. Many of the Jews from Kurenets that were taken there to be used as forced labor in the train station were also murdered. Now, Jewish Vileyka, our young beautiful sister town was erased from the Jewry map with hardly a survivor.
When people found out that the rumors of the inhalation were based on facts, they all started to look for hiding places. They started making tunnels and underground hideouts inside fireplaces, between double walls, in basements, and in attics. Everyone was looking for a hideout knowing that the day of slaughter of our own town Jews would come soon. The day after Purim, it was unbearably cold but we ignored the freezing weather. We kept running from one person to another in attempt to find out if anyone we knew survived the killing in Vileyka. Through gardens and fields amid homes, we reached each other. No one had any fences--the fences were used as wood in our fireplaces. The streets were empty of Jews. It was just too dangerous to use them.
A rumor spread that all the "professional people" will be taken to work for the Gveent Commissar in Vileyka and all the usable Jews were to be kept alive for the duration of the job. Therefore, everyone tried to become a "usable Jews". We all wanted to stay alive. I didn't have any usable profession and I was very depressed. It had been eight months that I had been escaping hard labor. Now, I had to find a profession that would keep me alive. I really didn't trust the promises, but still, as if I was a drowning man looking for a stick, I was hanging on this opportunity. After a lot of pondering, I had an idea. I would register as a tanner.
My father in-law, Mendel Chasid, had supported me in this idea. He said that he would also register in the Judenrat as a tanner and together we would be able to learn the profession. I had no knowledge of the job but I knew that my father in-law, prior to the First World War, had a workshop for leather goods and he knew some information about the profession. Therefore, I was dangling on this profession. I went to the Judenrat in the house of Yechiel Kremer, the son of Yekutiel Meir, and I registered. The crowding in the house was unbearable. Everyone was looking to be saved. They all came to register as professionals. Merchants, shopkeepers and teachers, became carpenters, glassmakers and any other handy profession. Shotz, the head of the Judenrat registered all of them. He was a Jewish survivor from Austria. He knew German fluently. Now, he controlled the miserable Jewish community. I didn't envy any person who Shotz didn't like. After crowding in lines with the rest of the people, I reached Shotz. My face was completely new to him. He registered me as a tanner and told me that at three in the afternoon, they would take all of the registered people to Vileyka.
I ran home to take something for the road and to say good-bye to my family. I cried when I came home. I knew that shortly I would have to say goodbye to my son, my dear wife, my mother, and my mother in-law. Abruptly, I decided not to go and to stay here. If it were our fate to perish, we would perish all together. Every corner in my house was dear to me. I was married only three years ago. Mother started crying, and I joined her. "My son, my son," she said, "Don't forget your lonely poor mother. Don't forget son that all my days as a widow, I only gave for you my children. I already lost my dear Yankeleh to this war, don't forget me my child." My wife and my mother in-law joined her crying. I decided that no matter what, I would not go to Vileyka. My father in-law said, "You cannot let go of an opportunity to be saved. Maybe someone will be saved. God is full of mercy. We must stop the crying in the name of God. Collect something for the road and let us go." Here, the cries became louder. Everyone was hanging on me and we couldn't separate.
Then, Israel the tailor came, he separated us and said, "It's getting late and we must depart. Later will be too late." Hence, my father in-law and I left the house. We all met next to the Christian prayer house. We left like soldiers in lines. All around us stood our relatives to say goodbye as if it was a funeral. Some of the Christian town natives were dressed in black suits with gray ribbons on their sleeves, with shiny boots and rifles on their shoulders. They were watching us. These people grew up with us, they went to the same schools with us. Now, they became collaborators, killers of the town's Jews. They took us in long lines through the empty town's market. It was freezing and the snow was making loud noise under our feet. The wind was whispering as if it was crying for us. Our guards kept hitting us with the ends of their rifles. We were walking as if we were sheep ready to be slaughtered. The closer we got to Vileyka, the more they hit us.
We entered Vileyka. The doors and windows of most of the Jewish homes were all broken. Broken furniture and dishes were thrown all over the streets. The wind blew parts of clothes. This was what was left from the beautiful Jewish Vileyka. The only people we saw there were the German police in their light green uniforms and their shiny helmets with skulls on their uniforms.
A tanner and the painter.
Our guards wanted to please the German rulers, so they started beating us harder and they made us run all around Vileyka so we could see the destruction of the Jewish quarter. Then, they brought us to the Gveent commissar. We stood near the main building and here came one of our most fateful moments: would they accept us as professionals or would they turn us back to Kurenitz? There were just a few more Jews left in line when my time came to stand in front of the Germans scum. He was dressed in a uniform with many medals. He held a stick in his hand. "What is your profession?" he yelled in my face. I tried to give myself an expression of confidence and I answered, "I am a tanner." I saw that everyone who was present from my townspeople, were very surprised that I had lied, and they looked at me with sorrow. "How old are you?" he asked. I said, "Twenty-six." "How many years have you worked in this profession?" "Twelve years," I answered. "I know how to prepare leather for fur coats and for shoes." To the right, he screamed so for now I got a sentence to live. Next, was my father-in-law. He asked him the same questions. When he answered, "Fifty-six," he said, "To the left." I was shocked. My father-in-law looked at me from afar signaling me with eyes full of tears. Nevertheless, we were not allowed to say anything.
This is how Hendel decided the fate of the entire community. Standing on the side trying to be seen as little as possible, I didn't know whether it was good or bad that I had lied to Hendel. What if tomorrow I would have to prove my knowledge in this profession? In front of Hendel stood a huge man, a survivor from the slaughter in Rakov. He was dressed like a villager with a rope around his waist. When he was asked, he also said that he was a tanner and obviously he was immediately chosen as a professional. All my hopes and thoughts were with him thinking that he was a real leather man. As soon as they sent him to the right, he approached me as a member of the same profession, and, at first, I was very happy. He immediately said that he would assist as much as he could. He told me how strong he was, that he was as strong as ox and that he could help me with anything if he were next to me, the professional! When I heard that, it was as if my world as darkened. All hopes with him were lost. One liar meets another liar.
When evening came, it started getting very cold. The police collected us and took us through the alleys to a broken building. They announced that all the people who were not selected would be returned to Kurenitz the next day.
Here, I met again with my father-in-law. We would separate this night. We sat in a room corner on the cold floor and my father-in-law started teaching me the secrets of the profession. the names of the processes, the chemicals that I had never heard of, what tools to use, what to do first and next. I was totally depressed and ready to give up. I didn't think that there was any purpose in this. It was clear that I didn't know the profession, but my father-in-law would not let go. Like a teacher with a student, he was announcing things, testing me, and asking me to repeat everything, checking to see if I understood. Everyone else was lying around, thinking that we had lost our minds. This was a sleepless night, hardly anyone slept a wink. The night lasted as if it was a whole generation.
Morning came. The police shouted and everyone who was found useless were put in lines and returned to Kurenitz. At the edge of Vileyka, not far from the Jewish cemetery, a big wooden building was built by the Russians as a school for the children of the laborers. The wooden building was partially destroyed as most of the homes in Vileyka were. The furnaces were broken the doors and windows were taken out, and inside the rooms was snow that came through the broken ceilings. Very near the building there was a kitchen. Right next to the kitchen was a huge dog, probably put there on purpose. Every time we went there to get water, we would feel his bites. The first thing Shuts gave us was sharp barbed wire and told us to put it all around our area. I was put in the same room as Yosef Zuckerman, the brothers Kopel and Eliyahu Specter, Hershel Zimmerman, Yechezkel Zimmerman (Charles Gelman), and Yermiyau Alperovich. Yermiyau had a heart of gold and hands of limitless capabilities. He could fix anything, he was a miracle worker. He was always ready to help anyone. He would go through fire and water to help us. In a short time, Yermiyau built in our room a furnace, and at the first night there was already wood warming in the furnace and we could use it to boil water. He was like a merciful mother to us.
Shortly, all the professionals people started working. The carpenters were making furniture, the shoemakers were making boots, the tailors were working, the blacksmiths were working, and everyone was busy except for me and Gershon from Rakov. We were walking around aimlessly. I approached Shuts and explained that for our job we needed a separate area. The smell of the leather is very strong and the process of the leather was very slow. It would take a long time until we could produce anything. Therefore, I asked that he would arrange for us a separate house where I could mend the leather according to the rules of the profession. Shuts, the director, understood my explanation and said that very soon I would get the raw materials to fix the leather for fur coats. While he was talking, he said that making fur coats were not as difficult of a job and the smell was not so bad and could be done in one week. Immediately, I told Shuts that I did not want to wait and be idle until the raw material got there, so maybe I could meanwhile be a painter. I knew much more about painting. My request was transferred to Hendel and, with the help of God and my good friend Yosef Zuckerman who tirelessly talked to the other painters and asked them to help me, I became a painter. Gershon from Rakov, who was such a strong man became a woodcutter and would do any work that required strength. At first, we were told to paint the house of one of the heads of the camp, Graveh, a Latvian killer who killed many of the Jews of the towns in the Vileyka district. His apartment was very near the jail.
One time, I was sent outside to get water from the well to be used for mixing the paint, I looked for the well and all of a sudden I saw near the jail a big bon fire. From the direction of the fire, I smelled burning bodies. Right next to the bon fire, I saw a man who I could not recognize with a long stick. He would push the burned bodies into the bon fire and pour gasoline on them. I ran as fast as I could to tell this to the rest of the painters. We went to the back window, and from there, we could see this awful site. We stood there shocked and paralyzed. These bodies were leftover from the Purim killing of the Vileyka and Kurenitz Jews. All of a sudden, we heard the footsteps of the killers coming towards us, consequently we had to leave that scene of horror and return to our job.
My friends, the painters, put a large amount of paint on my clothes to make me look experienced, and I continued painting with them. However, the Jewish head of the camp never forgot my original profession. One day, he brought me two foxes to be used. When I saw the two dead foxes, my heart plummeted. I was sure that my end was near. My friends, the painters, started looking at me with eyes full of pity saying, "What else can we do for you that we didn't do before? Now our hands our tied."
I started thinking very hard trying to remember what my father-in-law had tried to teach me when we lied on the cold floor that night. Trying to remember names of chemicals, the order of the tasks, and the tools that I should use. I decided that if I would not be able to do the job, I would try to escape. First thing, I brought water and put the two fox bodies in it. There was still meat stuck to them and the smell was horrible. I remembered what my father-in-law ordered me to do. I squeezed the carcasses, massaged them, and cleaned them until one could see the white leather and the fur did not fall off. To my surprise, Shuts liked my job, and, again, I prolonged the arrival of the angel of death using chicanery and lies.
The sanitary conditions in the camp were very bad. We had no place to wash ourselves and we didn't have clean underwear. The "third Egyptian plague" started bothering us. Day and night it bothered us and we could not find rest. Finally, the Germans decided to take us to the bathhouse. I will never forget that bathhouse. We walked under heavy guard outside of town. We were taken to a big auditorium that was not heated. The glass windows were covered with ice. We were ordered to strip naked. All our clothes were taken and put in a boiler. We were divided into two groups. I was among the first group. The cold weather pricked our skin and we stood there naked. We started hitting one hand with the next, running in place, and kicking with our feet--anything to keep warm. The killers looked at us and started laughing with enjoyment. It was even worse when we entered the next room. There, was ice water. In this room stood a German, next to a pail full of black soap. Each one of us was ordered to go to the pail and there the German would use a paintbrush on every inch of our body. The soap was very stinky and caused a burning reaction. Therefore, the cold and the burning sensations made my body feel as if I was hit with many iron whips. While standing like this, naked, ready to leave the showers, all of a sudden we heard screaming, "Fire! Save us! Fire!" The panic spread all over. People were jumping on top of each other to get out. There was a cloud of black smoke that burned our eyes. The German police kicked us all out to collect snow to put out the fire. Later, someone told us that the one responsible for the cleaning of our clothes was new at the job and put the clock that controlled the water temperature on too high, and this was the reason for the fire. Many of us thought he did it on purpose.
All of the clothes of first group were burned, so now there was a question of how we would return to the camp. There was no choice but to use some of the clothes of the second group. A few gave pants, stayed with their underwear, some gave shoes, and stayed with socks, some gave sheets. This is how we returned. Evil ghosts would look nicer. Covered with black soap, frozen and stinking, we walked through the streets of Vileyka. All through our walk, people gathered and laughed. Little children ran after us throwing snowballs and cursing us. From our eyes, there were tears of blood. We walked hunched with no will to subsist.
Together with our families.
We were there for more than three months with very little contact by our families. Occasionally, they would send us food or short letters that we read breathlessly with our hearts pounding. The usual news was about punishments, killings, and tortures. The Jews of all the shtetls in the district were killed at this point. Would our town Jews survive?
All of a sudden, there was an announcement by Shuts that he would give us permission to transfer to Vileyka all the families of the useful Jews. They already had made the same announcement in Kurenets, and the wives and children prepared for the move. It was as if they were going to embark on a voyage to a golden beach. The rest of the town's Jews who were tortured and depressed saw them as the luckiest of people. On Sunday morning, the governor of the district sent us with guards to Kurenets so that we could bring our families. At the head of the group walked the bloody killer, I can't remember his name, but we used to call him, "The Limped." The oven maker, from Vileyka, his cruelty knew no boundaries. When we saw him, we almost fainted. After the war, I was privileged to see him hung near his home.
How difficult was our entrance to our hometown meeting the Christian inhabitants walking around freely, dressed with the clothes that they stole from the Jews, and in their eyes was a mean mocking look of superiority! Can I ever describe both the meetings and the good-byes from the relatives that came to meet us for the last time? The mocking of the gentiles, the screaming of the police, and the deep, dark depression of the Jews who were standing in the market, broken and displaced. I can never forget the last words of my dear mother, "My darling children, we are giving to you the rest of the years of our lives. You must survive, at least when you will be saved you must tell others about our destruction."
The two grandmas and the grandpa clung to their little grandchild crying. The site tore our hearts, but the Christian inhabitants and the police were watching the pitiful site saying words of mockery and cursing. The police started yelling and ordered us to hurry. We started moving and behind us, we left weeping and broken hearts.
In Vileyka, the women were also sent to work. Each morning, they would get up very early to clean the streets, shovel the snow, clean the toilets, and bring firewood to the German homes. In the winter, they would harness them, like horses, to the buggies. In the summer, they would harness them to sleighs only to torture and mock them. Our children were hungry and dirty wearing torn clothes. They would stay in the barracks all-alone and would regularly go to the barbed wire fence to see if their parents were returning. Shuts announced that again we would be classified and the ones who would be found suitable for jobs in the camp would live in a different barrack closer to the head of the unit. Also, they would bring some new workers from Kurenets and other places and their camp would be headed by Zsinstand, a Kurenets native. Shuts, at this point, knew that I wasn't a painter or a leather man, so I was sure that now he would get rid of me. After bribing him, using my good connections to plea for me and a lot of begging, he decided to let me be classified as a useful Jew.
Next to the public hospital was an abandoned home whose inhabitants were sent to Siberia by the Russians in 1940. There were about eight rooms in the house, and now they put there 150 people--men, women, and children. The living conditions were unbearable, but, for some reason, they didn't watch us very carefully. Therefore, through the yard, occasionally, my little sister, Hannah, would sneak in to see me. She belonged to the children workers camp of Zsinstand. During those days, sometimes a smile would come to our face. The carpenters told us that lately the Germans ordered a huge amount of coffins, the amount of which was getting bigger and bigger. They said, "Das machen dee maradee rash partisanan. Ze marden un zara saradaten." How happy we were to hear that! A new spirit of hope spread amongst us. We decided that we must escape to the forest as soon as possible. The situation in the Zsinstand camp was horrible. That is where they took children, mostly they were from Kurenitz There were a few from Ilya, Myadel, Smorgon, Keblenek, and Dolhinov. Hendel decided that he could not live without a sport court. He coerced the Jewish children to build him one. Every day the children would break rocks. From early in the morning to nighttime they made gravel to be later put on the ground. They put the gravel in a huge tank, the little children were harnessed to it, and they would take it from one side of the yard to the other. There was a horrible watchman by the name Gadi, who caused a lot of blood and tears to spill by the young children. Still today, I can remember the lines of blood on my sister, Channaleh's back from the whip of the watchman who used it while she was washing his floor.
The Slaughter in Kurenets.
Three days prior to Rosh Hashanah 1942, the Christians people came by and told us the most horrible news. They told us about a slaughter of the Jews who were left in Kurenets, they said it occurred at the end of Myadel Street. At first, we refused to believe them. We had heard rumors like this before, and later the rumors would be disproved. However, to our horror this time, it turned to be the bitter truth. We still had with us letters that we had received from our relatives and friends in Kurenitz from a day or two prior to the slaughter. We took the pages out and cried. We kissed the letters that were written by our dear ones, and we could not continue working. We were shocked and deeply depressed. A short time later, they brought carriages full of clothes and other belongings of the Jews of Kurenets. Our wives were ordered to separate them into men's clothes, women's clothes, children's shoes, etc. Occasionally, they would recognize clothes that belonged to their beloved relatives. Nevertheless, the watchman did not allow the women to show any signs of depression or desperation while working. How they were able to continue their job? Where did they find the spiritual strength? The little children also found out about the horrible occurrence.
On that night, no one slept. It was a night of mourning. We cried and we tore our clothes. We pulled the hair out of our heads. We sat on the ground and mourned our martyrs. People who were left single with no families said, "We must escape immediately. Now, it is very clear what the Germans are planning, and anyone who refuses to escape will stay here to be hung." Nevertheless, some of us said, "winter is coming. Where will we escape to with little children?" Others tried to console themselves by saying that the Germans were building a big theater and that they would need us for at least six months so we should stay here until Spring and then try to escape.
It was a night of tears and desperation until the morning came. We went to work, but we were like human shadows. A few survivors from the slaughter in Kurenets came to Vileyka. They Stealthily hid in the Zsinstand camp. It was more complicated to reach our camp inasmuch as it was watched carefully.
One day, around noon, I entered the barn to take some water to boil. All of a sudden, I heard a strange noise from the roof. At first, I was sure it was a cat. However, when I kept hearing the sound, I guessed that it wasn't a cat, but a person. I called, "Who's there?" I thought that someone was trying to commit suicide so I went out of the barn to let other people know. Gitel kapelovitch, the wife of David the tailor, stopped me and said, "Don't run anywhere." She started whispering to me that her sister, Dvushka, the wife of Eliyahu Chaim Alperovich, was brought here a few days ago by Ingeleh Byruk, a gentile from Kurenets who saved many Jews. He hid her in his carriage under a pile of hay for a few days, and now she was concealed here and no one knew of it. Dvushka came down from her hiding place crying and begging me not to tell anyone. Maybe later she said she would convince Shuts to let her stay. Dvushka was beautiful, with all the prettiness of a Jewess. She sounded so naïve when she said this. I said, "Dvushkaleh, don't stay here. Run to the forest. Find people who will help you and you will survive. For the love of God, don't stay here." My heart was crying inside. As if to mock, she was blossoming in her beauty. After a while, Shuts took her to work as a cleaning woman. A short time later when she left to work outside the camp, some of the Kurenets inhabitants recognized her and immediately informed the Germans that she had escaped the slaughter and that she was with us illegally. One evening, two killers from the SS entered the camp. They found her and took her, the next day she was released. We were very happy to see her among us. We said, "Dvushkaleh, you must run out of here immediately." "Where will I run," she begged with tearful eyes, "My face will be a testament that I am a Jew anywhere. I must stay near my sister. I am already lost." The next day, the two killers returned. She cried and begged for mercy. She was held in prison for two weeks, where she was tortured by every killer. Later, together with Itka Chadash, she was shot by the killer, Gravah, behind the jail.
To pretend that we were gentiles was almost impossible for most of us. Most looked Jewish. Despite that, I decided to take my chances and to take off my yellow tag of. To conceal the Jewish star that were sewed on the front of the clothes and on the back, to dress in typical clothes of farmers in our area. To secretly leave the camp and get in touch with some Christian acquaintances. Whenever I would plot it and start getting apprehensive of the idea, I would consider the aim of my mission and then my fear would subside. Finally, I was able to accomplish it. I left the camp in attempt to get weapons in preparation for the escape to the forest. I knew the roads very well. I was able to reach the home of one Christian acquaintance of mine who lived in Vileyka and he promised me to buy me a weapon.
Many times I returned to his home and each time I returned to the camp very depressed because he would delay giving me the weapon. Every time he would raise the amount of money, he wanted for it. Finally, he took me up to his attic and gave me the "supplies". With excitement, I started kissing his hands. He was not satisfied with just kisses and asked me to give him some leather for boots, the only break he gave me was that I could give him the leather on a later occasion. He put the gun in a rag and tied it around my leg in case someone would check me. My heart was beating with happiness and excitement and in great spirits, I returned to the camp.
Of my secret, I only told my friend Yosef Zuckerman, and his eyes lit with happiness. However, both of us had no knowledge of weapons. I knew that Hertzel Alperovich used to serve in the army, so I was sure that he would know something about weapons. How shocked I was when Hertzel told me that you could not even try the gun because it locked the barrel with bullets.
My heart broke. My spirit was lifted again thanks to Kopeleh Specter who was an absolute genius and in his hands, the gun became lethal. He fixed the gun according to the exact rules. Now all I needed were bullets. Therefore, again I started running around looking for the correct bullets amongst my Christian acquaintances. Finally, I got three bullets.
The annihilation of the Zsinstand camp.
A short time prior to the slaughter in Kurenets, the governor of White Russia, Koobah, came from Minsk to "visit" our camp. He was the one who was responsible for the destruction of the Jews in Belarus. He came on a foggy, rainy day. All of a sudden, we were surrounded by Belarussian police, and they took us back to the camp. At that point, we were all sure that they were going to kill us. It was impossible to run awayrunning was a sure death. Each one of us started counting our sins to ourselves. All of a sudden, Shuts announced, "Everyone go to work. No one stays in the camp." Hastily, everyone started running to their workplacethe carpenters to the carpentry, the shoemakers to the shoe shop, etc. Only I and my brother to the lie, Gershon from Rakov walked around aimlessly not knowing what to do. All of a sudden, I remembered that there was still one dead fox in my sleeping place, so immediately I ran through a side alley to my room, took the leather, and tried to return to the work area. When the women saw my face and my fearful running, they suspected that I took my weapon and was planing to kill Koobah. All the women stood in the door front and prevented me from leaving. They started checking me and begging that I must not do it, they feared for their children's life. It took a lot of explanation to calm them down and to prove to them that I had only returned to fetch the leather for my job.
When I returned to the work area, the group of killers entered. Amongst them were Koobah and the commissar for our area, Schmidt. They were followed by guards. Everyone was armed as if ready for a battle. At once, I turned the fox around to the inside and the smooth skin to the outside. I put it on a piece of wood and with a knife, I started working the skin. Our nervousness became fear when we heard the sounds of their creaking boots. All the workplaces were very busy. You could hear the sounds of hammers, saws, iron, etc. I was the last one to be visited. Koobah looked at me and at what I was doing with a look of great disrespect. He listens to my explanation of what I was doing. My heart died inside until we finally reached the blessed moment and they left. Now I could sigh with relief.
The results for our camp were only our great fear, but Koobah gave an order to eliminate the camp of Zsinstand. A few months later, on Saturday in November early in the morning before we even left for work, two young girls came to us running. One was the sister of Shalom the tailor from Kribitz, the other was Hashka, the daughter of Israel David from Kosita Street. Their hair was all messy and their eyes were turned around and strange with fear. They were talking in very confused order and crying hysterically. They told us what had happened in their camp. The night, when it turned dark, the killers had taken all of the children out of the camp on trucks. They were taken to the forest near the Jewish cemetery and all the children were murdered. Again, everyone in our camp started crying.
I had a particular part in this tragedy. My only sister, the baby of our family, Chanaleh. We could hardly walk to work. The carpentry was on the second floor, they could see through the window the black smoke from the direction of the Jewish cemetery. Again, people talked about escaping. The people who were single announced, "We are going to escape, we are getting out of here immediately. Today we are going to run. We are not going to perish because of the families here who believe the Nazis. Look at the smoke," they yelled, "Look and see. This is your own blood burning here. What are you waiting for? Very soon, they will bring their clothes for us to sort. Who is going to sort your own clothes? Who?" Some of the family people said that they were right, but still among us were true professionals who believed that they were needed at least until Passover.
The Germans were building a theater and our work was necessary they said. These people would not let us run. They threatened us that they would stop us by force saying that if we escaped, everyone that stayed would be annihilated. Secretly some people managed to escape on that Saturday since that day the watch was not very careful, the guards were busy preparing for Sunday celebration. So on that day, about twenty escaped, amongst them Chetskel (Charles Gelman) Zimmerman, Tuvia Kopelovich, Moshe Lazer Torov, Chalvina Torov, Shimon Zimmerman, and Riva Gordon Zimmerman. Everyone thought that the German revenge would come soon. Women started calling to their husbands, "What are you sitting for? Run and escape with them. We must save whoever we can." We dressed the children with the few clothes that we had and stood ready as if we were standing in the train station with our little bundles. All of a sudden, Shuts came and said, "It's fine, the governor said that nothing bad would happen to us since we were useful Jews." Shuts continued saying that he thought we would manage to save ourselves through this war. We didnt really trust those promises. We knew that those were lies, but we were very fearful to escape on a winter day with little children. Therefore, for now we decided to stay.
On Monday, all the women were sent to take the clothes, the shoes, and other belongings from the Zsinstand camp. They came back from their work destroyed emotionally. We felt as if the gates of pity and the gates of revenge were forever locked for the Jews. We were broken people and had no means to do anything to control our fate.
We become gravediggers.
Many days past since the annihilation of the Zsinstand camp. Time seemed to crawl very slowly. However, in our heart we started feeling a slim hope that maybe we would be lucky enough to See Spring, and then, if God wishes, we would be able to escape. The news from the front was encouraging. Now, the Germans were busy with the killing of their own collaborators, they were killing Polish and other the German sympathizers. They would even bring priests to the Vileyka jail and there, they would kill them and put them in a common grave. Other "important people" who saw themselves as German patriots and who continuously killed Jews now were being killed by the Germans. Therefore, now some of the Christian citizens started feeling that the Germans were treating them as "Jews" and they must do something against them. Still, we were very depressed with only a slim hope.
One day, I with seven other men was called by Shots, it was a very early morning hour. I did not have any time to say goodbye to my wife and son. I could find no way of escaping. We were surrounded by Belarussian police, who were armed with machine guns, dressed in black clothes with gray straps tied to their sleeves. They ordered us to take shovels for digging. We were sure that our end was coming that they were taking us to dig our own graves. As usual, they made us work in pairs going in the direction of the Jewish cemetery. We immediately realized that that is where they were taking us, and Yitzkale, who was my partner, could hardly walk. I whispered to him, "Itzka, if they ordered us to dig our own graves, we must escape. When they shoot us, at least we will be running. We shouldnt just accept our death quietly." We all told each other to do this whispering to each other. Gershon from Rakov, my business partner, said, "With my shovel, I will kill at least one of them. I will cut him into two from up to down. And then I will die." Clearly, he would have been able to do this even without a shovel, just with his hand since he was so strong.
The local Christians were looking at us smiling and the Belarussian police were laughing saying, "Say hello in heaven to the rest of the Jews." They brought us near the Jewish cemetery where they had killed our sisters and brothers, the citizens of Kurenets. Two of the police walked away to look for something and they ordered us to sit on the ground. The three other police stood around and said, "Anyone who tries to escape will be immediately killed." Our teeth were shaking although the day was not cold and there was little rain and fog on the ground. They ordered us to get up and start to dig. One of us said, "Why are you torturing us? If you wanted to kill us, do it right away." A policeman from Vileyka, someone, who used to be a shoemaker and learned his job with one of the Jewish shoemakers, started cursing us very dirtily. He ended is "speech" saying " first you must put in the ground the bodies of the Jews from the annihilated Zsinstand camp. Now, there is a danger of disease spreading to Vileyka", then he continued, "Your turn to die would come later."
The horrible sight is very difficult to describe. I dont think anyone has the strength to describe the details. Still today, I see it with all its horror constantly. There was a broken bathhouse in the area. In the chimney, which was all broken, there was a skeleton of a man that must have tried to hide there and was shot right there? All around the field were torn parts of bodies eaten by dogs and wolves. There was a cloud of black crows that covered the area. It looked like the plague of locusts had arrived. We had to fight them to get to the area. The smell was unbearable. The police let us tie something around our noses and mouths. There was no way we could work but the police said that they would kill us if we did not work. "We will bring other workers and they will bury you too," they said. They started hitting us with their rifles so we returned to the job. Deep in our hearts we knew that our horrible job was a "mitzvah" since we were bringing to Jewish burial our dear ones. With our last might, we started collecting whatever was left of the bodies and put them in the hole that we dug. Here and there, we could identify from the clothes that were left some of the bodies. I could recognize Velvel Markman from Smorgon Street. He was saved from the slaughter in Kurenets and later reached the Zsinstand Camp. He begged to get a job there. I recognized him because he was a big man and I knew his coat and his color. I knew that my darling sister, Chanaleh, would be there. I thought that maybe I would find her body and I would bring her to a Jewish burial. I looked among the clothes. I also recognized another Jew from Smorgon. His name was Simon Danishevsky. At one point, he had worked with me as a painter. I recognized him by his short fur coat and his rubber boots that were full of paint. I buried him and continued looking.
All of a sudden---Chanaleh, my Chanaleh---her body was without a head or arms. I recognized her from her blue coat. The coat was torn and full of blood. I also recognized her belt. I couldnt control myself anymore. I fell to the ground and held to what was left of her body. I started tearing my clothes and ripping my hair out and cried with horror. My friends tried to separate me from the body. The police knew what was going on and understood that I was going insane so they took me away from the burial area and put me lying on the ground. My friends continued without me. I was so destroyed that when we returned I could not walk. They had to support me. This is how we returned to the camp. The news that we brought that day was like salt on our open wounds.
There were many arguments among us. Opinions were divided. Some of us wanted to force our manager, Shuts, to discontinue his career working for the Germans and together with us to find the means to escape to the forest. It was very difficult for us "employees" to convince him that the killers were not going to keep us alive for our hard work. The truly professional people supported such opinion that they will be saved and refused to escape. (All of them did perish one day prior to the Russians freeing the Vileyka district. They left a note inside a wall where they begged us to say the kaddish after them). After horrible arguments, we managed to elect a committee for the escape. The members of this committee were Mordechai, son of Havas Alperovich, who now lives in Israel; Hertzel Alperovich, may he rest in peace; Yosef Zuckerman, who now lives in Israel; Kopel Specter, may he rest in peace; our manager Shuts; Yonah Riar, from Ilya, both live in Israel; and I. The mission seemed very difficult. How would we be able to get the women and children out? Some had ideas, but they seemed impossible to accomplish. At that point, we got a message from the people who had escaped on the day that they annihilated the Zsinstand Camp. They told us that we should immediately try to escape, that to stay in the camp means to wait for death. They also said that we must get weapons. In the forest, we would need weapons. They sent the messages through a farmer from the village Neyaka, 20km from Kurenets. We called the farmer "The Beard". He had a long brown beard that was much groomed. He wore laptzas on his feet. He would usually wear a huge coat, and on his neck, he wore many crosses. He was very calm and relaxed with a generous face. He had sparkly blue eyes. For us he was a saving angel. He would bring us news from the battles in the front, and would give us hope telling us stories about the partisans. His motto was, "You must escape. In the forest you will survive."
We kept sending with him things that we wanted to safe keep. For us this was a miracle. This rare occurrence to find such a Christian man. He would sneak into our camp endangering his life each time. Danger could come from anywhere for him. We started preparing to go to the forest in full force. We prepared double souls for our boots we made them from the blankets. We started sewing warm clothes and underwear and we made duffel bags with sewing kits and anything else that could help us for life in the forest. We were preparing as if we were going on a long journey. Through that time, we were constantly worried that someone would leave prior to the set day and then the rest of us would be annihilated. People were particularly worried that I would go prior to the set day. Even my little three-year-old son would beg me, "Take me to the forest. I also want to survive." He would say that every time I would wear my jacket to go to the Christian homes to talk to one of them about our plans. My heart was crying inside when I heard him beg. Each time I had to convince him that I was leaving but that I would also return.
Shuts was now convinced that hard labor would not save us. He knew very well that most of the people in the camp were planning to escape. Still, I was worried to let him know that I had weapons. However, I knew that he had good connections with a German native that hated the Nazis so I talked to Shuts and he talked to the German man. Eventually, the man sent me through Shuts sixty bullets for my gun and another gun for Yosef Zuckerman. To find a German behaving like this was unheard of. He was always telling us, "Escape to the forest. The time of defeat for Hitler and his murderers is coming soon. Escape to the woods. Here, you wont survive." Yonah Riar from Ilya also got a gun, but when we finally escaped, he had no time to get hold of it.
Spring was approaching and the air was getting warmer and our hearts filled with good hopes. We all watched the tree branches to see signs of blooming. After a day of hard labor, hunger and fear, we would all gather at nighttime and all we would talk about was escaping and planning how to get the children and women out. The main thing that working against us was the fact that Vileyka was situated in a geographic area that was very hard to escape. A large portion of the town was surrounded by the river Vilya. From the north, the train tracks were constantly watched by the Germans. Moreover, that was the only way we could the large forests surrounding Kurenets.
During the slaughter in Kurenets, Gravah collected some Jews and brought them to the yard of the jail were he was living. There, he arranged them according to their profession to work in a big wooden barrack. With them were some laborers from the towns of Ilya, Krivitz, Smorgon, Oshmena, Voshenva, and other towns. There were professionals he brought to be used for his project. There were about thirty people, all single with no children. Among them were a few women. We knew of them being there, and they knew of us. They wanted to get in touch with us therefore occasionally they pretended that they did not have tools and they came to our camp to borrow tools. This way we knew of what was going on with them.
I remember at one time on Sunday morning the bell rang for us to go to work. We were all prepared for inspection. We were all sure that Shernogovitch was coming. His terrible name was known to every Jew in Kurenets. He was responsible for dozens of killings. When we saw that he was approaching, we all ran. However, when he came close, we realized it was not Shernogovitch, but it was Meir Alperovich son of Zalman and Reshka daughter of Yuda Alperovich. When he saw us running, he started yelling to us in Yiddish. We surrounded him and started asking, "How is it that you are wearing Shernogovitch clothes? How could you be a policeman for the Nazis?" Meir told us that yesterday the Germans murdered Shernogovitch, the collaborator, and for some reason, they ordered him to take the clothes off the body and to wear them. He ended his tale saying "maybe we would be lucky and revenge all our killers. Hopefully, I would be lucky enough to also bury Gravah the Horrible."
Gravah was eventually killed by land mines while he was strolling in his carriage with his wife and child. The mines were put there by the partisans. Just like our connection with Meir, we met other Jews who wanted to escape. They also waited for spring. Their situation was much more difficult than ours. They had less freedom, less food, and more torture. Still, some of them managed to survive. At one point, they brought to Vileyka huge number of Jews from Branovitz. They were all men who were survivors from many different slaughters in the area of Branovitz. They told them that they were taking them to Russia for productive work but they brought them here and they all lived in one big barrack near the train station. The barrack was originally built as a barn for produce by the Russians. They only put a little hay on the ground and that was how they lived. They gave them very little food and no sanitary help. Many diseases spread amongst them. People died every day. The Germans would also kill a lot of them. Their main job was cleaning the tracks, putting supplies on the train, and taking supplies off the train. We had some communication with them, but it was very difficult. We could only meet them when we were sent to the train station to take some coal. There we would have a minute to tell them, "Escape to the forest." We quickly told them the forests and villages where they could find Jews and partisans. We tried to help them in any way we could, giving them cloth to bandage their wounds. They also, like us, had different opinions. Some thought that they should continue working, and others thought that they should immediately escape. However, every day some of them would die. At the end, only very few managed to escape to the forest. A few of them survived.
The fate of the professionals.
In Vileyka, itself, outside of the camp, there were a few families who were useful Jews. There were three brothers with their families. There was Malahshekvitz, who was a soap maker; Shmookler, who used to sell metal but now became a glass blower; Shimshelevetz, a dentist who survived the war and lived in Russia; Yashteshev the veterinarian, with his wife, sister, and child. They lived in their own homes with their possessions, but they had no illusions. They knew that their day would come. They helped us as much as they could. If it were not for Malahshekvitz, we would not have had one piece of soap to wash. The brothers gave us leather, and the veterinarian also helped us. They were in touch with many Christians and they would tell us of what was happening in the world.
Other than these professional people, the Gentiles did not know some professions. On that account some Jewish people who were herbal medicine makers worked for the Germans. From Germany came merchants who established a factory for pharmaceuticals. Among those people were people who were saved from the Kurenets slaughter. Among them were Gershon Ayeshevsky, his wife and children; Cantor and his father-in-law Mendel Canterovitch. Originally, they all escaped to the woods but they could not withstand the difficult conditions there so they returned to Vileyka. We were very bitter when we thought about that. For us, the forest was the ideal, the aim of our desires. Here they came and destroyed the image of our idea. We still kept in touch with them. The letters that The Beard would bring us from the Kurenitzers said one repeated thing, "Bring weapons. Bring bullets. Go the forests and save your lives." When we would read the letters, we would shake from excitement. Everyone was looking for bullets. Each time, prior to The Beards arrival, Hertzel Alperovich would take two pieces of wood with a deep space between them, and there we would hide bullets. Once the bullets were in, we would cover the sides and put dirt on it with mud so that no one could see that it was recently disturbed. Then, we would take it to a place in the yard of the hospital that was next to our camp and put it on the ground. The Beard would go all over the yard, as if he was looking for junk and he would take our wood with the bullets together with other junk to bring to our brothers in the woods. We would call the wooden plaques, the Tablets of Revenge. We did not have much chance to send such merchandise because it was very dangerous and it was hard to get bullets.
Spring was coming and we sat there as if we were sitting on hot coals. Each day seemed to us like a generation. The three brothers from Vileyka knew that their end was coming. The students already knew their jobs, so they decided to escape to the woods. They left with a lot of possessions, clothes, money, and valuables. They had many acquaintances in the villages around and we all were very envious of them. We were very worried that day, thinking that the Germans would punish us for their escape. However, the incident passed with no problems. To their homes their assistants entered. The fear subsided. Now we were very happy that they escaped and we were telling each other how they had weapons and how they were so strong and that they contributed a lot in the fight since they knew the villagers.
Not many days later, we were all shocked. The oldest of the brothers came to our camp dressed as a farmer so no one would recognize him. We found out that he came as a messenger for his brothers to beg the killers to let them come back. He came to beg for forgiveness for him and his two brothers saying, "We did a foolish thing. The police told us that they were going to kill us, but now we know they were joking, we are sorry for what we did and come to ask for forgiveness and to let us be come back". We saw him as totally insane and we would have done right by his brothers and family if we had killed him immediately before he went to the authorities. If we had done so, we may have saved the rest of his family.
Although there was some truth about the difficult life in the woods, to us it was nonsense. We spit in his face and warned him not to do it. Despite the difficulties in the woods, he was better off there. However, he refused to listen. This was used as a big enforcement to the people who were against going to the forest. They said, "Look. Those strong brothers with their connections could not withstand the conditions in the forest, so how could the rest of us do it?" We answered that the day of death would come here and that we would not stay here waiting. We would escape to the forest. The Germans were very happy with this incident saying that the Jews would not be thinking anymore about going to the forest.
They let the three families return to their jobs. When the three families left, they took with them Yosef Norman, but he did not return with them. He had found connections with Jews and partisans in the forest. He survived and now lives in Israel. Some days later, Shimshelevetch, the veterinarian, was taken out of his home to be transferred to the Zsinstand camp, but he succeeded in escaping and survived. After a few weeks, the Germans killed the brothers who returned with their families.
The day of escape.
It was Wednesday, 18 March 1943. It was a clear and crisp day. At noon, the sun was very hot and some of the snow started melting. Drops of water melted off the roofs, and the ground was full of puddles. You could see some of the dark earth and this was a sign of the approaching spring. Good smells of spring were all around us, which healed our hearts and filled us with a renewed will to survive.
We watched with envy the local Christian citizens walking around freely enjoying the splendor. Here we were imprisoned waiting to be slaughtered.
Some urge, I did not know where it came from, made me not go to work. I stood strong against Shuts and did not go to the train station to put the coal for the hospital as he ordered me. I stayed only in the hospital yard to help with taking down some things. For some reason, I just could not be useful that morning. All I could think about was our "Tablets of Revenge" (the wood planks with the bullets) that were lying at the edge of the yard of the hospital. I was intently waiting for The "Beard" to come and take them. I was looking all around searching for him, and the rest of the workers did not understand my nervousness. Only Shmuel Ashkenazi, the son of Sipka the widow, knew the secret and would answer the people who were questioning my strange mood saying, "Leave him alone. He is not healthy today."
Finally, at noon, I found The Beard inside the camp. I did not know how he entered the camp without me seeing him. He brought a letter telling us to be ready to escape this coming Saturday. The letter said that across the train tracks their would be carriages to take the women and children, and a young Christian women would come and help us escape. Our hearts were filled with excitement and we wanted to dance with happiness and to kiss the feet of our savior. Grandfather, may he rest in peace, would say he was the spirit of Elijah. We kept blessing him and thanking him, but we knew that he should not stay for long. I said my goodbye and told him I would see him in his home next time. He got out using a side alley and I returned to the job. My heart was beaming with excitement. I could not wait for evening to come to let the rest of the people who were working in other areas the good news. The Beard was walking around the yard taking all kinds of junk, among them the Tablets of Revenge. It seemed like everything was fine so I returned to the camp through a hole in the fence. With me also Shmuel Ashkenazi. We were ecstatic, but very quickly everything turned upside down.
The tale goes like this There was someone in the camp that knew the secret of the tablets, and he told the secret to his wife. Naturally, she told another woman about the secret. When The Beard took the junk and left the yard, they saw that a Belarussian policeman approached him and took him in the direction of the German police. Here in the camp, people were sure that the beard was arrested. The woman who knew the secret of the tablets could not control herself. Full of fear, she ran to her room, gathered her children, and started screaming that any minute the Germans would come and kill us. Not only this, but she ran to the area where the carpenters were working and told them the awful news. Immediately, everyone panicked. When Shuts heard this, he got his gun and suit and ran. Shmuel Ashkenazi and I were paralyzed. We did not know what to do. At first, I wanted to tell them to calm down, but soon I realized it was like a big wave that was going sweep me with it if I did not save myself. I ran to my wife and yelled, "Rosa! Quickly take the child and run to Navashevah." Navashevah was a Christian woman who promised to help us in our time of need. Her family was very helpful to us prior with encouragement and helped us getting weapons. I took the weapon and had no time to take all the bullets, only the bullets that was in the weapon. I put the new boots and the short fur coat on, but the rest of the clothes that I had prepared, I had no time to take. I could not forget my loyal friend Yosef Zuckerman who helped me so much, so I quickly ran to his wife and told her to run with my wife to the Christian woman. Yosef was at that point busy painting not far from the camp. I was afraid to run to him using the regular road, so I jumped over the fence to let him know.
In the paint shop, I found Eliyahu- Moshe the painter, and he told me that Yosef went to get paint. I told him to immediately escape. I returned to the camp to see if Yosef was there. There, my wife Rosa told me that Yosef, his wife and son, had already escaped. They wanted to take her but she waited for me. I said for her to take the Jewish signs off herself. While talking, I started taking all the signs off her clothes and ordered her to immediately run. My little son was begging me to take him with me. I was surprised at my decision for them to run alone, but I realized that this was the best way since if we went together on a working day it would cause more suspicion. Soon, I said to myself, we would meet at Navashevahs house. I walked on the sidewalk with my hands inside the fur coat holding the gun. I thought that if someone stopped me I would immediately shoot him. The people of the camp spread all over. While walking, I met Yitzchak Alperovich, his wife Batshevah, and the two children. Yitzchak was walking holding a shovel as if he was going to work, but how foolish it looked going to work with two babies! I walked by them and without stopping I said, "Are you taking a leisure journey or are you escaping? Hold each child and run to separate areas. Dont walk together." I walked by our first living space where I had been so tortured. The place where my sister, Chanaleh, was taken to her death. From afar, I saw a group of German soldiers doing some physical exercise. Should I return? No, I decided to continue thinking that they would be too busy with their exercise to pay attention to me. I arrived at the house of Navashevah, the Christian woman. I stood by the gate at her yard but to my surprise, it was locked from the inside. From the house, I heard the pleading voice of Navashevah. She told me that there was no way she would let my wife in when the Germans were standing across from her yard. This could have caused death to her home. She suggested running to the forest and surely, she said I would find my wife there. While saying this, she locked her shutters.
By the train tracks.
I had no time to consider each moment seemed fateful. I was walking and my heart beating in pain from all the horrible failures, from all the plans that did not succeed. I reached the forest, it was getting dark. As night was approaching, the snow became hard again. I was walking amongst the young pine trees looking at the snow that maybe I would see footsteps. I was walking from one place to the next. My heart was bitter and feeling guilty. Why did I separate from my wife and son? Why was I so relying on the Christian woman and her promises? Still, I was hoping that they reached the forest and the Germans did not catch them. All of a sudden, I heard footsteps. I hid behind a bush, listening, with the gun ready to shoot. I heard Yiddish. It was David Kapelovitch and his wife, their two daughters, and their son Natchkah. They were happy to see me that they finally found someone else.
I asked them if they saw my wife but they saw nothing. Gitel, Davids wife, was a very clever and energetic woman. She said, "We must run now past the train tracks. If we pass the tracks, we will laugh at the Germans." From afar, we could hear the sounds of explosions and shooting. I told her that I was not planning on running but that I had to find my wife and child. In my opinion, it was too dangerous to run now since the Germans probably had found out that we escaped and had put more patrols. However, Gitel would not listen to what I was saying. There was no convincing her. They said their good-byes and I was questioning at that moment, "What if they are right? What if my wife also went across the train tracks?" I decided to go with them. I ran and caught up with them. The train tracks were not far, at the edge of the forest. By the area around the train tracks were trees and bushes that were cut, so now you could see everything. The Germans did it for the guards so they would have an easier time spotting the partisans. I heard shots from the direction of the train tracks and I said to Gitel, "Listen Gitel. There are many shots." Nevertheless, she was very sure in her opinion saying that this was an illusion and that the shots were coming from another direction. The children looked very scared like little fawns. Their clothes were too short and too tight. They had grown up in the camp. Their teeth were knocking from fear. I saw a shadow of a person walking on the train tracks. Quietly I pointed out the shadow to Gitel, but she refused to pay attention. Her husband, David, said, "How good it would have been if we were on the other side of the tracks already. At least 150 meters away from here." The sounds of the shots stooped and everything quieted down, Gitel said, "Now is the moment to run and cross the train tracks." She did not wait a minute. She spoke and ran. She was first, walking as if she was the main officer. Behind her walked her son Natchkah. Again, I explained to her that if she wanted to cross the tracks, she must crawl. Nevertheless, she walked erect because it was hard to crawl on the frozen ground. Unexpected, there was a shot, and Natchkah started crying. "Abbah, Eemah!" Immediately, I fell to the ground in a puddle that was slightly frozen. With my hand lifting the gun so that it would not get wet. I yelled to them, "Lie on the ground!" No one listened to me and everyone ran to save the son. Now the killers had a clear aim. I could not see anything, but I heard voices saying, "Save! Save!" With the rest of my strength, crawling, I returned to the forest, hurt and wet. When I reached the forest, I started running away from the place. Now it was getting much colder and my wet clothes started freezing. I ran from one bush to the next. All of a sudden, I heard a sound of someone running on the snow. I listened and I heard a voice of a child saying, "My hands are very cold daddy. Will we find Mommy and Ruben David?" When I approached them, I saw that it was Yitzchak Alperovich. He was digging with a shovel. What was he doing? I dont know. When he saw me, he was so shocked that he threw shovel, took his child, and started running. I yelled to him, "Yitzchak, why are you running?" He recognized me and came to talk to me. I asked him about my wife and child and he asked me about his wife and child. We stayed under a bush whispering questioning what we should do. I told him what had happened to David the tailor and his wife.
I warned him not to go to the train tracks. All of a sudden, we heard the sounds of German voice, "Rashkas Slinchas." We started running and I lost Yitzchak and his child. I did not hear any more German voices but I could hear many shots that were getting closer and closer. I lied there all by myself and a thought came to me. I never shot my gun. What if the gun does not work? I must try. Among all the shots, no one would hear my shot. From all the ammunition that I had collected through time, I was only able to take seven bullets. I pulled the trigger and shot. The gun worked. From near the train tracks, I heard sounds someone walking and someone saying, "God, what did you do to us? Mommy and daddy, your situation is better. You already live in a better world." I tried to see who it was. At first, I saw a shadow on the snow and slowly I saw a short person wearing boots with a dark coat and messy hair. It was a woman who was limping. All of a sudden, I recognized Dinkah Spektor. She stopped, confused, and scared. She fell on the ground saying, "Where am I?" The snow around her was red from the blood coming from her leg. The blood kept coming, so I took my shirt and tore the sleeve and put it on the wound. I started covering her bloody footsteps and transferred her to another location. She told me that together with many of the camp workers, she already passed the train tracks and on the other side, they met German soldiers who shot all the escapees. She told me who ran with her and who she knew was killed. How she survived, she did not know. Instead of running to the Kurenets area, she somehow returned to the other side of the tracks back to Vileyka. She did not see my wife and son. I put some snow on her wound. Quietly, she twitched from pain. I thought that I should take the other sleeve and put it on her wound. Unexpected, I heard more steps, quick steps. I peeked from the hiding place, it was Doba Alperovich. Her jacket was open and her hair was messy. I yelled to her and she stopped but couldnt see me. I yelled to her again and she saw me and started crying from excitement. She also thought that she was on the other side on the way to Kurenets. Lacking any energy and depressed, we decided that when night came we would cross the tracks. From the bushes, we could see the road. I saw some people riding bicycles. I crawled closer to the road and saw that it was a farmer that I knew from the Soviet days. He greeted me, "Hello," and told me that I must quickly go to the other side of the forest since the Germans were coming to this side. He blessed me and quickly departed. I returned to the girls and told them. We decided to somehow go near the road to Molodetchna. Dinka had horrible pain. Doba and I supported her and walked toward the road. All of a sudden, we heard horses running, and the sounds of Belarussian and Latvian voices. We fell on the ground in the bushes. I held my gun ready. We could see them. They were policemen. We all decided that we would commit suicide if they caught us. Dinka was begging that she should be shot first since she was wounded anyway and would not survive. Doba was begging that she should be shot first. Dinka was shaking so much while talking that she sounded as if she was stuttering. We were all watching the killers every step hence we would not fall in their hands alive. I was almost ready to use the gun, but Dinka stopped me, "Maybe you should wait a minute." Doba said, "They are coming right by us. What are you waiting for?" unanticipated, I saw the police going in our direction turn to the right. They continued looking for people in a further direction from us, so now we had some hope of escape. Finally, we could not hear their talking. It was getting much darker and the air was getting colder.
A meeting at midnight.
We waited for the late night to come so we could pass the train tracks, but we were not lucky. The night was very clear, the moon was shining, and the snow was very bright. We stayed lying on the ground and our clothes froze and became hard. I looked at my watch, it was 10pm. I decided that we must leave. I was also starving. I helped Dinkah get up. She was lying on the ground and it was impossible for her to move. I tried to encourage her to get some strength telling her that we must go to the other side of the tracks, because if we stayed here until daytime, we would be dead. From among the trees, we could see the lights of the houses where other people sat safely in their homes. We walked and the snow was making a swish sound beneath our feet. This made us very upset. We were very fearful. We thought that someone was waiting behind every tree. We reached the edge of the forest. We hid under a bush, looking at the train tracks that were about 50 meters away from us. All of a sudden, we saw red flares then green flares then other colors. The Germans were busy watching. They were not going to sleep. We went to another area and we saw shadows of people on the train tracks. We heard sounds of talking but could not understand. It was already midnight and the watchmen were busy patrolling. Without warning, we heard the sound of breaking snow as if someone was running.
We were lying on the ground quiet and scared. Could the Germans be searching so late at night or could it be Jews? We were very fearful. From afar, we could see the barracks with the red flag and swastika. We could see two shadows going toward the barracks. It must have been the watchmen returning from the patrol. Then we saw the running people returning to where they came from, stopping in certain spot and searching for something. For some reason, in my heart I was very sure they were Jews who were lost like us. I started running and the girls tried to catch me being fearful that they would lose me in the dark. The two shadows must have heard our sounds. They stopped, as if they hesitated, I stopped and waited too. A womans voice started calling, "Dont shoot!" It was like an electric shock going through my body. I recognized the voice, I could not talk for a second. I then yelled, "Rosa!" My son immediately recognized me and yelled, "Abbah!" He ran to me and we all started hugging and crying from excitement. The second shadow was of Batshevah, the wife of Yitzchak Alperovich, with her children. Doba and Dinkah started hugging Batshevah and her children. I told Batshevah that around 5pm, I saw in the forest her husband with her son but I had lost them. I carried my little son. He hugged me very tight and said, "Now we wont leave you daddy. Now we will be with you." Somehow, he felt much safer now, believing that I could protect him. Life seemed much dearer now, I had a reason to live and fight and try to get out of here. The tracks, the tracks. How could we pass the tracks to the other side? It was already 1:30am. I tied my son on my back using a big kerchief that my wife had. My hands were free so I could use them if I needed to. While we were walking, my son whispered to me that the Germans caught his mother and him but somehow his mother convinced the guy that they were not Jewish and he let them go. They went to Navashevah's house, but she did not let them in. We crawled all around looking for a way to cross, but they watched the tracks everywhere.
The double floor.
We lied on the snow not knowing what to do. All of a sudden, an idea came to me. It seemed stupid at first. I told it to my little group. We must return to Vileyka. They all looked at me as if I was insane. "Kill us right here before you take us to Vileyka," they said. I explained to them that we must not stay here until daytime to cross the tracks. Tonight there was no chance. Since we were not very far from the barracks that used to be the Zsinstand camp, which was half destroyed and was empty, we could hide there during the day. I also reminded them that in the wooden barrack, there was a wooden floor and between the two floors, there was an empty space of about 30-40cm or slightly more. Therefore, we could hide there in the open space. Furthermore, tomorrow they would stop watching the tracks so carefully and we would be able to pass. I explained that I knew the hiding place well since I had used it on occasion. The women said, "Do as you wish. Without you, anyway, we are lost." Time was getting short and we had to quickly do something. Immediately I tied my son on my back and I walked in front of my little troop. I held the gun in my hand and we walked quietly. No one made a sound. We reached the main road. I lied in a ditch looking. I saw no one so I signed to my group to pass across the road. We reached the Jewish cemetery. I looked at the graveyards, jealous of the dead who died a natural death, had stones on their graves, and had a kaddish said. Among them was also the burial place of my dear friend Yermiyau Alperovich. Yermiyau, my dear friend, with the heart of gold, committed suicide not being able to take the torture. He drank poison and died with horrible torture. We tried to save him by taking him to the hospital but he begged to die. I could still hear the cries of his wife Chavi Sarah nee Babniyar with her two children and one more on the way. On his grave was a wooden plank that we put as a memorial.
We knew we should not stay there. The distance from there to the barrack was about 50 meters. All of a sudden, we heard a loud bark, it was the horrible dog that many of us were bitten by. We ran and we somehow managed to get to the wooden barrack. We found the opening in the floor. We entered the hiding place. Now, I had time to think and I realized that the children were hungry and tomorrow they might cry from hunger and we would be found out. I decided to leave and find some food. Next to the barrack was a home of a Christian woman that many times helped me, therefore I decided to go to her house and give her my watch in exchange for some food for the children. I left the hiding place. The sky was full of stars and it was freezing. Slowly, I reached her house. I stood behind the window and I could hear someone coughing. Again, I had a pang of envy of people who could sleep quietly in their home. I started knocking on the window. No one answered. I knocked louder. All of a sudden, I heard steps of people walking on the road. They stopped and I heard them talking German. They said, "Where was the knock?" I was frozen. I stuck my body to the wall and stopped breathing. When they moved, I entered the yard and, in a little storage area without a door, I hid in the hay. The Germans came in the yard. They lit the place with an electric light. They quickly looked everywhere but finally left. I decided to return to the hiding place. I took two ice balls so people could drink. Everyone was very happy to see me and said that somehow we could withstand the hunger. We lied there hugging each other and we fell asleep.
I kept having nightmares seeing pale tortured children surrounded by SS with rifles. I saw fires on Myadel Street. I saw a woman running with a baby inside the fire looking for a hideout. I saw my mother and my mother-in-law coming to me saying, "Dont run in this horrible time. Hide." I saw my mother-in-law lighting a candle saying, "Good week to you. Good week. May you be blessed." The sounds of wooden planks being taken up woke me up. Not far from here were Christian homes and residents would come to the barracks to take pieces of wood for their fireplace. We lied e very quietly hardly breathing. Even the children knew the danger and they put their little hands on their mouths so no one could hear their breathing. We lied this way without food and drink, Only snow.
My wife did not let me leave to get food. She also had a dream where she saw her mother who told her that we must wait until Saturday and then we will succeed in our escape, consequently that is what we did. I held the watch in my hand deciding that exactly at 11pm we would leave. I took the children out of the hiding place like a cat taking her kittens. They could not stand on their feet from lying there for so long. But, their behavior was exemplary. They waited patiently with no food for days. Much worse was the situation of the women. When they finally got out of the small space, they fell on the ground and almost fainted. I put snow on their faces to wake them. I knew that in the condition they were, we could not proceed far, so I decided to try my luck again.
I left them there and went through the cemetery to the house of Navashevah. They were not asleep yet in the house. I was afraid to enter the house thinking that maybe they had guests, I stood at the corner of their home waiting for them to close the gate. When Navashevah saw me she instantly crossed herself as if she saw a ghost. From fear, she fell on the ground but quickly controlled herself. She hugged me with excitement and started kissing me. She took me to her barn and entered her home to tell her husband to put the children to bed so that they would not see me. Her husband was very happy to see me. He let me enter their home as if I was their son. I told them that I could not stay long and must get something for the children to eat. When they found out that my wife and child were safe, they could not hide their excitement and they started crying. They apologized and said that there was no way they could let them hide in their house, but it had caused them a lot of guilt. They put bread, butter, eggs, milk, soap, and underwear in a little bag. I wanted to give them my watch, but they were insulted. They told me that almost every one of the escapees who ran to the tracks was killed. We kissed and said our good-byes.
After the war, they told me that the neighbors saw me when I had come to the house and told the Germans. The Germans beat them very badly, and their daughter was sick for many months because of the beating. I brought the food and everyone jumped on it like hungry wolves. Quickly, I tied my son to my back and gave him two pieces of bread to hold. Like this, we left. A train passed the tracks. We waited for a short time and quietly passed the tracks. It was another cold bright night. We quickly moved away and we passed a body of a Jew with a child of about six all naked with their hands on the ground. Until today, we still do not know who those people were. All night, we walked around looking for familiar roads by using the stars for direction. All of a sudden, we saw from a hill the white brick home with a little window slits and we realized that we were once more near Vileyka and this was the jail.
At the edge of the forest.
I knew that we must not be too close in the farms. We must hide because the farmers might report us to the Germans. I found a big, thick bush under which we lied and I cut some branches and put them all around us so nothing could be seen by passerbys. We heard the sounds of bells. Some young people must have gone to a wedding. We could hear harmonicas playing and the sounds of drunkenness. At one point, a farmer came to the forest and started cutting trees with his saw. We lied quietly in the bush listening intently. All day long, I looked through openings in the bush. When night came, we started walking away from the farms. We passed through a village that was about 5km from Vileyka. Instantly, I smelled smoke and the smell of burning bodies. From afar, I saw a bonfire. This was the bathhouse where I later found out that they took all the escapees that they found alive and burned them. I was told this when one night I came to a farmer and using my gun, I demanded that he give me bread and show me the road.
After walking all night, we passed by Kurenets from afar. I only saw the sharp top of the church. We could also hear the sounds of the carpentry that used to belong to Chaim Zokofsky who was killed with the 54. We passed there as if we were smugglers. This was the town where we were born, the town that had a lively Jewish community for many generations. I knew the names of the villages where I could find some survivors from Kurenets. It was Katlovetska, Naviky, Starinky, and Rusuky. They were about 15-25km from Kurenets. If we would have used the main road, we would have quickly reached the villages, but we had to use fields and the forest path and at no time used real roads. Our feet were beat from the strenuous walk. My sons feet, who I was carrying the all time, were frozen from lack of movement.
Finally, we approached the village Starazi. We stopped at the edge of the village next to the Christian cemetery. We decided to rest there amongst the gravestones. I left my group and went to find out information from the villagers. I found a little home at the entrance to the village. I could see from the window that the only light was from a kerosene lamp. Around the table sat two children and their father. A woman was giving them dinner. I knocked on the door. When they opened it, the heat almost shocked me. The farmer immediately recognized me as a Jew and said, "What do you want Jew? We have not bread for you. The Kurenets Jews do not give us any rest. They beg us for bread all night. Where are we supposed to get so much bread? How long will you bug us like this?" He told his wife to give me a few potatoes. I told him that I did not want food but that I wanted to find the way to the other villages. The goy was surprised. What Jew does not take food offered to him? At that point, I did not know that the Jews in the forests had become beggars.
I had thought the forests were full of partisans armed with ammunition. We were sitting in the Christian cemetery waiting for late night when the villagers go to sleep and maybe some of the Kurenets Jews would go there. Suddenly, we heard footsteps. Quiet and unsure footsteps. We saw two men walking cautiously and stopping every few feet. I was lying with the gun in my hand, wondering who these people were.
I heard Yiddish. I was excited. When they saw me, they became very scared and started running in different directions, leaving their bags there. I yelled to them, "Jews dont run! Jews dont run!" They came back. I could not recognize them at first, though when they started talking, we recognized them at once and we hugged them. One wore a hat with no brim. His hair was very messy. He had a dirty messy beard. They both wore short torn jackets tied with ropes and their feet were covered with rags. One was Dania Sosensky. He was dressed a little nicer. On one foot, he had a laptza and on the other foot, he had a boot. But Daniel Alperovich, the son of Chaim Abraham,( who was later caught alive by the Germans on May 1, 1943 when he was sick with typhus. He was then taken to Vileyka and they cut him with a saw into two). At this point, Daniel Alperovich looked awful. Who was saved? We asked. Both of them told us that they would immediately go to the village to get some food and get something for us too. Later, they would take us to the forest and we will find out who was saved. "You must be very hungry," they said. Daniel Alperovich took out of his bag a frozen latkah. He divided it into two parts and gave it to the children. After a short time, they came back very angry. The villagers did not want to give anything. They carried the children and the rest of us followed to the forest. "Very soon, we would be there," they encouraged us. After walking 10km, we reached with our last energy the forest. The yearning of so many Jews that the killers got before they were able to complete this journey.
Translated by Ari Solly Gordin. In honor of my grandfathers, Dr. Sali Gordin and William Burk, both possessed a noble and generous spirit, and are greatly missed.