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Childhood in the Ghetto
Dr. Rachel Shmailovitz

Page 408 The daughter of Israel and Fruma Davidson, Rachel Shmailovitz was born in Minsk in 1933. She immigrated to Israel in 1959, and now lives in Ahsdod.
Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan and Ona kondrotas

Our home in Minsk was traditional. My grandfather, the father of my mother, was a Jewish slaughterer and performed religious circumcision. At home we spoke Yiddish. During all the Jewish holidays our relatives came to our home. At Hanukah, we lit candles and our uncles gave us the traditional coins. During Passover, all the family members sat around the table and we carried out the traditional Seder ceremony. We also attended the synagogue. There were many Jews in Minsk besides us who maintained Jewish tradition. We loved attending the Yiddish Theater in Voldoaski Street. My brother even studied the Hebrew language secretly with a special tutor. The food we ate was Kosher, per wish of my grandfather.

In the summer of 1941, at the time of German invasion of the Soviet Union, I had finished first grade at a public Soviet school. Near my home there was also a Belarussian school, but we were not pressured to attend one or the other school. Each person chose according to his or her wishes.
As soon as the war started and the German shelling of Minsk began, we attempted to escape on the carriage that my father had arranged for us. The roads were filled with refugees. Some were walking, others where riding, and yet other modes of transportation were used. We soon realized that all the roads were closed for us. The Germans were faster than us, and so we had to return to Minsk. As soon as the Germans arrived in town they took Father; he went together with all the other captured men of Minsk. In the camp they were taken to, Jews and Christians were separated, and all those Jews who admitted to having an academic degree were apparently killed.

Father was able to escape with the help of my mother, who came to visit him, bringing him women’s clothing to disguise him. Together they escaped from the camp. This was a very dangerous thing to do, since at that point no Jewish man was allowed to live at home, and the Germans had announced that anyone found at home would immediately be shot, along with his entire household. At that point, we lived in a private residence with a big yard where we grew vegetables. We had a patch of potatoes, carrots, and a chicken coop. We had prepared an extra supply of food some days before the war because we had heard rumors of an impeding war.

As soon as the Germans announced that all Jews had to live in the ghetto, we exchanged homes with a Christian man who had lived in what was now designated as the ghetto. We were able to bring all of our belongings with us. Other people moved to the house we lived in also. The adults would go daily to work in a colony. We had a shortage of food supply, and everything that we had prepared ahead was soon eaten, so we started exchanging clothes and other possessions for food. To carry out such trade, we had to secretly go to the 'Aryan side'. To do this was extremely dangerous.

Most of our gentile neighbors treated us very nicely, but they were fearful of being discovered as being such by the Germans and during the pogroms were too frightened to assist us. We, the children – I was seven, my sister was four, and my brother two – were also very fearful. At night all the homes were dark, and there was no electricity, only oil lamps. I remember that there were young people’s meetings nearby, during which they would talk of escape from the ghetto. The young people would collect weapons and falsify IDs. Mother was able to get such a fake ID for my father stating that he was of Tartar origin.

During the first raid in November, we escaped. Harnessing a horse that we had hidden at the neighbors, in our carriage, we were able to arrive all the way at the shtetl Rakov. On the way, we encountered a few checkpoints, where the Germans asked us to show IDs. They looked at my father’s document where it stated he was a Tartar, but found no fault with it and let us pass. When we arrived in Rakov, we pretended to be Christian. Father said that he was a widower and mother was his neighbor, and some of the children were his while the others the neighbor’s. We found residence with family who knew that we were Jewish. Both of my parents worked for them during the nighttime, and remained hidden during the day. Some time later, the daughter of the family married a Volksdeutcher and we had to escape.

During the night we returned to Minsk in a carriage and entered the ghetto through a fence, leaving the carriage behind. Upon returning, we found that murders were already a daily occurrence at the ghetto. We were able to escape these killings because Father was very good at making hideouts. He arranged a very clever hideout for us inside a toilet in the yard. He constructed a tunnel under the hole of the lavatory, and from there we could reach an attic that was used previously to keep vegetables in. One time, Father with his brother and his brother-in-law was planning to leave the ghetto as someone reported them to the police. Father was able to escape and reach a hideout, but his brother-in-law and a few other Jews were caught and murdered. The Germans brought trained dogs to smell out father and the rest of us; they came by the hideout, but since the toilet smelled so foul, they were unable to pick up the human scent.

Following that day, Father left the ghetto, hiding with a Christian woman of Tartar descent. During his escape, Father's head was wounded and for a long time needed bed-rest. The woman of Tartar origin fed and took care of him. Some of the food that she brought him he would share with us. In the mornings, I always joined a colony that left the ghetto for work, and returned in the evening. By miracle, I was never caught leaving the colony: as soon as I reached the other side of the ghetto fence I would run to the home of the Tartar woman, who would give me two sacks with food, and I would carry these to the place where mother worked, near the train station. She would later bring the food to the ghetto. Until this day, I cannot comprehend how, as a little child, I was able to carry 32 kilograms on my back every day.

After each raid, the Nazis decreased the parameter of the ghetto, as, proportionally, the ghetto population also decreased by thousands each time. We now lived in a home that belonged to our grandmother, who had been killed during one of the raids. Mother still worked for Germans, laying train-tracks. She received food in her work place, but she gave some of it to us. The children also collected potato peels that were thrown away by the Germans and made food from them. In addition to this, we also received food from Grandfather. After Grandmother was killed, Grandfather was one of the first people to escape the ghetto. He pretended to be a Christian, and found work with a Christian man. The man didn’t recognize that Grandfather was Jewish, despite the fact that Grandfather had a typically Jewish beard.

During the visit of Eichmann to Minsk in the March of 1942, a kind German man hid my mother in his home and did not let her return to the ghetto. During the infamous visit of Eichmann, Mother was at work, and at that time, the ghetto was already very small and all the adults worked during the days. The raid started at eight in the morning. Everyone who was in the ghetto fled to their hideouts, but the adults did not let little children enter, since they were fearful the children would cry and the hideouts would be discovered by the Nazis. My little sister said to the adults who refused to let her enter, "If you do not let me enter, I will tell the Germans where your hideout is.” So they let her in. I was too fearful to go to one of the hideouts with my brother because he was very young and I feared that he would cry and they would suffocate him, so we hid together in an open pit in the yard, where we were discovered by the German police.

They gathered all the people they found, and told us to walk in lines down a slope. While the people walked, armed policemen stood on both sides and shot at us, killing people as they walked. I saw I was standing next to a very tall Ukrainian policeman. I whispered to him, “We have a lot of gold at home. Take me to our hiding place and I will give it to you.” So he took us from the slaughter. I had a gold crucifix that my parents bought me, thinking that I would appear Christian if I had to escape, so when we arrived to the hideout I gave him the cross and said the gold was hidden elsewhere. I started begging for my and my brother’s soul, and cried bitterly. He said, “you are very young but very clever,” and put us in the hideout and closed the opening with a mattress. We stayed there for three days, drinking the urine of the policemen who relieved themselves in the latrine. I would wet my hand with the urine and put it on the lips of my little brother. We ate the little food I had in my pocket. On the third day I couldn’t take it any more and had to leave. I gave up, thinking I could no longer escape death. When I came out of the hideout I found my aunt, who stood and cried bitterly over her daughter, who had been killed in the raid. All the Jews started coming out of their hideouts, and they all stood and cried. Mother was not to be found, and neither was my sister. I entered an empty house and sat there the entire night. In the morning, I took my brother to the place where all the Jews who had survived were gathered. This was in the Jubilee Circle; there I found my sister and grandmother and finally, my mother, too, returned.

The pogroms continued and the ghetto became increasingly smaller. Almost daily, the Germans guarded the Jews and then killed them in the cemetery area. A rumor spread that all the elderly and children would be executed and the remains used to make soap. As soon as this rumor reached us, Father came to the ghetto and took us in order to hide us at the house of the Tartar woman. In this house lived the woman’s cousin, who worked for the infamous General Kube. She was a very beautiful woman, and the Germans would often visit her. Her name was Helene Maznik. Consequently, the Germans came to visit a woman at a house where Jews were hiding but had no inkling of it. Soon, we realized that this was a very unsafe arrangement, so the Tartar woman dressed us in farmers’ clothing and we escaped to the forest, pretending to be two families: father, my sister and brother were one family, and my mother and I another. We told people our homes were destroyed and we were looking for elsewhere to stay. We walked by foot all the way to the town Rovizevic, about 40 kilometers away. On the way we asked for alms. Nobody suspected that we were Jewish.

In Rovizevic we lived in a barn and Father found work with one of the women there. One day, Father was caught by some Anti-Semites who recognized him as a Jew and wanted to kill him, but he was able to escape. Mother took the children and we fled to the forest, far away from Rovizevic. For four months we lived in the forest. It was an incredibly difficult life. We were practically starving until we learned that a camp for Jewish escapees and their families that had been established by shalom Zorin and the Resistance movement. We walked there, and when we arrived at the camp, it was as if we had arrived at the Garden of Eden. Together we dug a zimlanka (an underground trench). With the Rovencik family, Father joined the Partisans and took part in their missions. Returning from the missions, they would bring fruit and other foods for us that they had confiscated from the farmers. A school was established in the camp for the children, and we ate together in a canteen. It was here that we celebrated the First of May and other festivities. Shalom Zorin was a wonderful man and took care of all of us.

After the liberation, in June of 1944, we returned to Minsk, where we found a family living in our old home. The daughter in this family had married a German soldier and subsequently escaped to the West with him. As soon as the family saw us, they became very frightened and left the house. We found that much of the possessions that we had left at home were taken, and when we were able to trace them we had to go to court in order to have them returned to us. Father received a job in a shoe factory, and we - the children - continued our studies. At first, there were very few Jews in the schools, and Anti-Semitism was rampant amongst both students and teachers. Nevertheless, I finished tenth grade at the school. We continued to visit the synagogue with Grandfather until he died.

In 1952, I entered medical school and during Yom Kippur that year, I fasted and prayed at the big synagogue in Minsk. In 1956 I was married and Grandfather celebrated my Jewish marriage with us. The marriage was arranged secretly, with only a small amount of guests. I was in my fifth year of medical studies and we were fearful that I would be expelled from the university if found taking part in a Jewish religious ceremony. In spite of all the danger, Grandfather was successful in marrying us according to all the religious customs of our people.