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The Escape From the Ghetto
page 367 of the Minsk
In the year 1940, I came
to Minsk to visit my sister Miriam from what used to be Poland (the
Wilna region). [The Wilna region was part of Poland until 1939,when
the Soviets occupied It.] I found a job and stayed; there was something
new and different about living under the Soviet rule. The Jews of Minsk
received us the refugees from Poland happily. They were
pleased to meet Jews who came from across the border. They would often
say to us, after you get acquainted with our situation here, you
will see the difference between your old life and our life under the
socialist rule. At first, I didnt really pay attention to
what they were saying, but after living in a commune together with Byelorussians
it became very clear to me what they meant.
In 1941, I was living in
Une when the war between Russia and Germany broke out. It seemed that
instantly the Anti-Semitic feelings rooted deep inside the society started
to surface. As the first bombs fell, people who only yesterday had been
our friends made us feel that we were 'Jews' and turned their backs
to us. As the shelling worsened, a mass evacuation began. My mother,
my sister, her little baby and I escaped. We did not succeed in traveling
further into the Soviet Union due to German interception on the roads.
Against our will but without a choice, we returned to Minsk.
On September first (1941),
all Minsk Jews were ordered into a ghetto. The area of the ghetto, which
was fenced in by barbed wire, included Republic Street, Nimiga, and
Jubieli Street. Immediately, the massacres began. Day and night, people
were murdered. The rest of us were taken often from the ghetto for forced
labor; teenagers and the elderly were tortured continuously. Germans,
as well as Ukrainians and Belarussians, murdered Jews in the ghetto
indiscriminately. It was surprising that so many Belarussian civilians
took part in this voluntary murder. People who had been lowly townspeople
yesterday became Nazis today, despite the fact that they grew up, studied,
and worked with Jews.
The first mass raid of the
ghetto started on the night of the 6th of November, the eve of the Revolution.
Around forty of us hid in a wooden barn. Amongst us was a woman who
was about to give birth. It was so crowded that you could only stand
on one foot. The gate of the yard where the barn stood was locked. Early
in the morning, we heard voices of Belarussian women, who had come with
the Nazi killers. We heard them say, they hid here, and they hid
there, and here you can see a hand and there a babys leg. Here,
there is a mother hiding with her children
During the initial siege,
about half of the homes in Minsk were destroyed. The Jews were given
a Until September first to evacuate all those Jewish homes and property
that had been left intact and go to the ghetto. Thus, we entered the
ghetto practically empty-handed. On our way to the ghetto, some of the
gentile children threw rocks at us. In the ghetto, ten people lived
in a room, there was no running water, and no plumbing. Even the water
wells that used to be in the yard had been purposely broken. Every morning,
we were taken to work, guarded by armed men. The workers received lunch
soup with potato peels and some rotten vegetables. While we stood
in the line to receive this food, we were beaten with sticks and encouraged
to fight and squabble amongst ourselves.
At first, I worked removing
the debris of the destroyed city. Later, when winter came, I worked
as a snow sweeper on the streets. We worked on Shabbat as well as the
other working days. The Germans said, a day of rest on Shabbat!?
What are you thinking, you kikes? But on Sunday we worked for
only half the day. During the Fall, when rain and snow came, we worked
barefoot and practically naked. After the events of November 7th (a
raid on the ghetto), the ghetto area was decreased in size and homes
taken from the Jews were given to Belarussians; we were forbidden to
ever return there. At these houses we left the last of our clothing.
The children in the ghetto
received no food from the authorities. Since many of them were orphaned,
they dug for themselves holes in the ground to hide from the Germans
and some of them froze to death in these holes. After a while, living
in such horrible conditions starving and dirty the children
became sick with spreading diseases. The Germans then came into the
ghetto and started killing them. There was only one hospital in the
ghetto, run by some Jewish doctors. One of them Dr. Lipschitz
later escaped and joined the partisans. Medicine was in very
short supply and receiving any medical help was very difficult because
there were so few doctors but so many patients.
People who did not work received
no food, so every time we received soup in our work place we tried to
save a little to bring to the people who were left in the ghetto
the mothers, the old people, and the little children., swollen from
starvation and cold. The small children became beggars, knocking on
the ghetto doors with little broken metal cans, asking for food. They
were a heart-wrenching sight
The Germans had a tricky
way to get people to come out from their hideouts. They said they needed
them for work. When people came, they would separate the old people
to work at one job and the young to another job, and all of a sudden,
trucks would arrive and the Nazis would start killing them. They would
push people into the trucks and take them outside of town, to a killing
field where the Germans had already dug graves for them.
Judenrat was established
in Minsk, serving as the go-between of the Jews and Germans. The members
of the Judenrat were ordered to collect different possessions of the
Jews and hand them over to the Nazis. The chief of the first Judenrat
was Eliyahu Mushkin. He was a decent and good man he would often
announce to the Jews ahead of time rumors of raids about to occur. He
collected medicine and clothing, transferring it secretly to the Resistance
that later took form in the forests. Every day, the Germans arrived
demanding various supplies, like silver, gold, jackets, medicine, or
soap, giving us a certain amount of time to provide these materials.
When the Jews were not able to meet the deadline, the Nazis would, as
punishment, execute somewhere between one hundred and two hundred people.
Some Ukrainians, when they saw that a Jew had a gold tooth, would extract
if right from the mans mouth. If they saw that someone had a gold
ring, they would pull it off the finger forcefully. At one point, the
Ukrainians, digging for wood in order to warm themselves, found that
Jews who had lived in those houses before them had hid their possessions
there. As soon as the Germans found out about this, they began demanding
more from the Jews. Every time we left for work, we had to pass a barbed
wire gate. The Überstormführer diligently recorded each person
leaving the ghetto.
By 1942, there were practically
no Jewish children left alive in the ghetto. One day, at work, there
was a mother who had taken her little child with her. An SS man came
to her and pulled the child out of her hands, placed the child on the
nearby train tracks, and with his foot, wearing Stiefel-boots, he stomped
on the childs throat until the child died. We who worked in lines
were not even allowed to stop and look, but the Christians who watched
through the windows started screaming and crying in horror. The Germans
would come into the ghetto during the night and would kill people they
encountered. It was like an open field for crazed looting, assaulting,
and killing. Whenever the Germans demanded something, they would follow
the order saying , if you do not supply us with what we ask for,
you will be murdered. We will kill you.
Some of the Jewish young
men were forced to take part in the Jewish Police; they were made to
wear a special uniform, which included a hat with a yellow rim. In Shiroka
street, a camp was established for those trained in some profession.
Their situation was a little better: in addition to the daily soup,
they received a piece of bread and coffee. With the Jews worked some
prisoners of War from the Red Army, but they felt themselves to be superior
to the Jews. Sometimes, to prove to the Germans that they were diligent
workers, they beat the Jews. If they found Jews hiding a piece of soap
or a toothbrush., they would jump them, screaming, You hagglers!
Once a Jew, always a Jew - always trying to profit, to get something
for nothing. In the end, however, their fate was much like the
Jews'. The Soviet POWs were shot by the Germans. Those few that were
kept alive escaped with the Germans after their defeat, since they were
fearful that they would fall at Soviet hands as German collaborators.
As the Germans killed the
heads of the Judenrat when they didnt comply with demands, the
members of the Judenrat kept changing and the Germans kept appointing
new people. Some of them were of truly low character. There was one
Jewish policeman, serving in the Judenrat, who was originally from Poland
his name was N. Epstein. He lived very differently than the rest
of us. Dressed in beautiful clothing, married to a woman in the ghetto
by the name of Rosa, he was very devout to the Germans. He acted like
a simpering puppy toward them. Through his cruelty toward the Jews he
hoped to save his own skin, but his end was much like the rest of the
The Germans demanded that
the Judenrat assist them in their raids. During each raid, the Germans
took roll of the Jews in the ghetto and recounted them again later if
any had died. If they found any missing from their homes, they would
immediately kill all the residents of that household [editors
note: each person had the number of their apartment on their clothes,
making them easily identifiable as household members.] The Jewish police
guarded the gates of the ghetto, and were supposed to fulfill any orders
given to them. The Belarussian police had much more leeway. They were
allowed to enter the ghetto at any time they wanted and do whatever
they wished rob, kill, or torture.
There were incidents in which
Belarussians helped Jews, giving them food. Some of these people were
of mixed marriages, and would sneak across the fence lots of bread and
potatoes. Eventually, they stopped doing this, since the Germans punished
severely anyone who helped Jews. Some of the Russian women helped the
Germans; they would receive clothing or valuables in exchange for information
about the resistance movement or giving up a Jew who was hiding with
Once in a while, at work
we would encounter Jews from Germany. I met a woman from Minsk by the
name of Lisa Perlmutter (PANES) who worked together with a Jewish woman
from Frankfurt, named Elsa. The German officer who was at the head of
this working operation was originally from Vienna. His name was Willi
(Villi) Schultz. He was forty years old, and fell in love with young
Elsa. At this point, Stalingrad returned to Russian hands, and he realized
that the Germans were about to lose the war, so he asked her whether
she could find some contact with the resistance. This occurred in the
March of 1943. Elsa told Lisa about it, who was not sure whether to
believe the story or whether it was a trap, since up to this point Commander
Schultz behaved just like the other Germans. He mercilessly beat anyone
who walked slowly. Still, after consulting some friends in the ghetto,
Lisa decided to take the risk. So, they promised Schultz that they would
bring him to the partisans, and, in return, Schultz said he would arrange
escape for some of the Jews of the ghetto, getting them some ammunition.
Thus Schultz announced to the Judenrat that he needed a certain amount
of Jews to carry some building materials for work he was supervising.
Every time the Jews would
leave the ghetto to work, the guards would sign a paper confirming which
German officer had left with how many Jews. When they returned, the
guards would write again how many had returned. In March 30, 1943, early
in the morning, we were taken in a truck and registered at the gate.
Our destination was officially recorded as Dakar, a town in the environ
of Minsk that had a brick factory. Supposedly, we were to carry bricks
to help build the airport of Minsk. With us in the truck was Elsa, her
nine-year old sister and a smith, a Jew from Minsk who had made from
scratch, during the past year, a rifle. Schultz sat in the drivers
seat with another driver. On the road, we encountered some Gestapo guards.
When they saw the Übersturmführer, they let the truck pass.
We were still fearful that this was all a trick and Schultz was really
taking us to the Gestapo. As we continued on the road, we met with the
Belarussian police, and Schultz informed them that he was on his way
to get some butter and eggs, but the dogs who could smell us in the
back kept barking, wanting to jump on the truck. Nevertheless, the truck
continued on its way. The road was very wet and the truck became logged
in the mud. Schultz ordered us, Jews, get out! and we put
some wood under the truck and were able to get it out again.
Finally, we arrived at the shore of the river Svitzlots, and found that the bridge to get to the other side had been destroyed. A few days before, during a battle between the partisans and the Germans on the bridge, it had been destroyed. The Partisans were on the other side of the river, which we had to cross in order to get in touch with them. With us was a Jew from Minsk who had been in the navy. He swam across the river. The local population, seeing a German truck filled with Jews, ran away in fear. Some of the local children were able to reach the resistance and tell them of our coming. When Tokorvsky, the ex-navy-officer, arrived at the village on the other side, the partisans gave him a small boat to bring back the waiting German and Jews. The first to be taken in the boat were Schultz and the German driver who had come with him. When the driver realized that they were being taken to the Partisans he wanted to leave. He and Schultz began to fight; the driver said he had not seen his family for two years, it was his turn to go on vacation, and that Schultz instead had brought him to the Partisans. Schultz said that as a lowly officer, the driver was obliged to obey orders of his commander, Schultz. Meanwhile, the resistance had arrived, so Schultz gave them his weapon and said, I am with you. They took the weapon off the German driver, too, and then they were all taken across the river. Later, the rest of us were taken across as well. Before leaving, we burned the truck. As we passed to the other side, Gestapo officers arrived riding on horses. But we were already on the other side and out of their reach.