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From the Diary of Rabbi Moshe Dreizen
From the Yizkor Book of Krivichi
(Only a few pages of the long diary are offered here)
Molodechno, Summer of 1940
Since our area of Poland was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939, I feared that my former job as a shochet and as a clergyman would not be looked upon favorably by the Soviets. I was apprehensive to stay in a small town where everyone knew everyone else’s business. I took my family to Molodechno, to become unfamiliar to the newly appointed Soviet officials. Molodechno was a larger town far away from people who knew me.
We rented a small, run-down house amongst Christian people in an isolated area, at the back of a garden. We were very happy to be anonymous. The new authorities built a high school in the area and I was able to get a job as a night guard in the building.
My brother-in-law, Lazar Kaplan, also arrived from Vileyka for the same reason: to not stand out in the eyes of the commissars that were sending the bourgeoisie to Siberia. Like us he lived in a run-down home and found a job as a simple manual laborer. Many other Jews did the same thing, and like this our lives passed fairly peacefully. For me it was like that until April of 1941, when I received a notice that I was drafted into the Red Army. I did as I was told since I could find no way out of it.
I was sent Skidel, near Grodno. It was a troop for labor, not real soldiers, about a thousand people, both Jews and non-Jews. We built a military airport. The work was very difficult, like slave labor. It was as if we had become like the slaves in Egypt, working from dark to dark, before dawn until after sunset. We were slaves to the revolutionary authorities of the new pharaoh.
We dug deep tunnels and put down concrete. We readied the area to make runways for the planes. Each one of us received a list of tasks, and if we didn’t finish them, we would be punished. We had ominous feelings about the things to come—we were not far from the border with Germany. Although we wore green uniforms of the Red Army, we were not armed and we did not receive any basic training. But we were still sort of soldiers. After some time, just a few hundred of us were sent to the village Nigarishi to get sand. There we lived on a ranch that was originally owned by a Christian man who lived in the US for some years. When he returned to the area he bought the property. Now this wealthy man lived in a small, run-down home on the property, and we lived in the main houses.
Our situation there was greatly improved. We still dug the sand and filled trucks that took the sand to the airport but not for so many hours.
We received some training on how to behave in case war started. They gave us also iron batons and told us that if we saw the enemy planes, we should go inside the trenches that we had dug. We still worked hard, but no one in his worst nightmares could imagine that the days to come would be much worse.
On June 22nd, 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union. The enormous war machine of Nazi Germany hit with all its might what had been its ally the previous day. Already in the first hour I realized the severity of the situation. There was the constant sound of planes flying above, flying low, dropping explosives and shooting everything—trains, cars, livestock, people--on the ground with their machineguns. We received the panicky order to go east.
We started running east as fast as we could…
All the roads were filled with cars and horses and buggies that had been confiscated from the villagers by the army since now the Soviet troops started retreating in panic. We joined this wave of the retreating Red Army, and we went on the road of Grodno-Lida that passed through Skidel. There was so much traffic that there was no movement.
The German planes kept bombing and shooting on the road, and it became like a slaughterhouse. It seemed that the German pilots were not satisfied with dropping bombs; they kept shooting at us with their machine guns. Many fell and all the ones who were not hit ran into the forests and fields, hiding amongst the trees and the plants, waiting for the night hours to come.
Late at night there was finally quiet and we returned on the road going east. All of a sudden, armed Soviet troops came toward us and ordered us to return, that we must go and fight the Germans. We said that we had no weapons to fight, so they said, “Well, we will get you weapons.”
So we had no choice. We returned with them.
As morning came, again we were attacked by German planes, and once again we ran into the forest. There were a few incidents like this, back and forth all that morning. Finally there were a few attacks by larger groups of planes, so everyone ran in different directions, even the commanders fled. Each person was on his own, and many returned to their villages. I was left all alone.
I knew that I must lose the uniform because with it I would have a hard time reaching home. This, for me, was the end of my army service.
I met a shepherd with his herd and I exchanged my uniform for his tattered clothes. I became a civilian. I looked like a beggar. I had a beard and my hair was all messy, and I looked like the hippies of our time. No one paid any attention to me. I walked on the side of the road, and I saw the German troops coming. None of them asked my identity.
I remember that people said no one should go to Lida, where the Germans were investigating everyone, so I went around, through the fields and the forest. After 13 days on the road, with hardly any sleep or food, I arrived to my house in Molodechno, where the Germans were already ruling. This was already a miracle: not many from the unit at the airport survived. Most of them were taken as POWs.The 4th of July, 1941
Until my dying day, I remember this day, the day I returned home. My wife Rushka and our son, Shaptai, were both well. Also, my brother-in-law Lazar Kaplan and his household were physically well. But all were very fearful and they had lost all hope of ever seeing me again.
My brother-in-law Lazar felt that we should not stay in Molodechno, that bad times were coming and that we should go. We should join the rest of the family in Krivichi, but my legs were not in good shape due to the long walk, and that I knew I had to rest before going on the road again.
I must say that the town of Molodechno was completely changed during those first days of the war. Most of the town was destroyed since it was at an important crossroads, and several important train lines passed through there. The Soviets had a lot of soldiers in the area, so the Germans kept bombing the area. Most of the civilian population escaped, and many were killed by the bombs, many of the homes were burned. It seemed like the Nazi pilots were very well-trained; they hit targets very directly, in a most destructive way. Not so with the Soviet pilots. It seemed that during those first days they were not very efficient.
Slowly my situation improved, but the ominous feelings would not let me rest. Everywhere I looked I saw huge forces going east. Rows of cars and tanks were constantly going through Molodechno, chasing the retreating Red Army. Since there was constant traffic, you couldn’t even see the end of the road. Meanwhile, the Nazis established both civil rules and military rules in Molodechno.
The 18th of July, 1941
On the morning of July 18th, 1941, orders were put out all over Molodechno in German, Belarussian and Polish. These orders were signed by the new mayor of the town of Molodechno, an SS man who was under the rule of the governor of Minsk, general of the SS Kuba. All the Jewish men from age 18 to 50 must gather in the central market. No other explanation was given. No one knew the reason for this. Since I did not go out, not wanting to be seen and also because we lived in an isolated area, I had no idea about those orders.
In the morning hours of Friday, July 18th, the owner of the home, who was Christian, came to us and informed us about this. She said in town, policemen were going from house to house and taking the Jewish men into the market. I said I would not wait and would just go there, and she left.
I planned to go there as ordered since the woman, before she left, said that in the announcement, all men who would not come there and were found in their homes would be immediately executed.
As I was going to go, my wife Bushka, may she receive many years of life, was very stubborn and said that she worried enough about me in the days when I was on the road, and that she would not let me go. I must hide in the house until evening. She said, “You never know what they are planning to do in the central market.”
It seemed that her heart knew what it told her. She was right. All the men who came there, whether on their or own or taken there, never returned. They were all taken outside of the town, where there used to be a big Red Army camp, which was now a POW camp. There they were all shot and their families were never informed of their whereabouts.
There was not a remnant of that group.
The Nazis only chose Jewish holidays or Fridays or Saturdays to slaughter the Jews.
It was clear now that we could no longer stay in Molodechno. It was very dangerous, since the policemen looked for men that were left in their homes. So we decided to secretly leave for Krivichi. But how were we to do it?
It was Friday night, but to save our lives we were allowed to break the Sabbath rules. First we went to the train station, but we found out that the trains could only be used for military purposes. Even if once in a while they let civilians go on the train, they checked them very carefully, and we realized that as Jews it would be impossible to pass the checks, so we had no choice but to walk. We took a few belongings and left on Sunday, the 20th of July as soon as the curfew hours ended.
Since it was morning it wasn’t too difficult, and we arrived in Vileyka.