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The Escape From the Ghetto
Dvora Trebnik

page 367 of the Minsk Yizkor book
Dora Trebnik was born in 1920 to the Eyges family of Globoki. She is the sister of Miriam Tokorski. In 1960, she immigrated to Israel. At the time of publication, she lives in Holon. She was interviewed for this story by David Cohen.
Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan and Ona Kondrotas

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 didn’t 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 baby’s leg. Here, there is a mother hiding with her children…”
This kind of collaboration with the enemies started as soon as the Germans entered. Some of the local population received them with bread, salt, and flower bouquets. The Germans published pamphlets with caricatures of Jews with long beards, crooked noses, and dirty faces, asking the local population to report of any Jews who had money, jewelry, or leather goods. The Nazis said that all those who would inform them of this and bring them the Jews would receive a reward.

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.
All the people who lived in apartments, five or six families to each room, had to be registered and receive a household number that served as identification. If any one of these people escaped, the entire household would be killed. We slept on wooden slabs that served as bunks, one on top of another, like soldiers in a barrack. To warm ourselves, we broke the fences around the houses and collected papers for firewood. Also, we used to obtain water to drink and wash ourselves with by melting the snow. Since we had no clothes, we slept in the same rags we went to work in. We would practically fall on the bunk beds from weakness and exhaustion.

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 man’s 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 child’s 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 didn’t 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 Jews'.

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 [editor’s 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.
The relationships between the Jews who came from the area that was Poland in 1939 and the Jews who had lived in Soviet Minsk their entire lives were usually friendly. Next to the Minsk sector that contained Jews of Russian and Polish origin, there was a different ghetto, totally separate, that was created for the Jews who were transferred from Western Europe. No communication was allowed between the two, and there was a fence between them. The Jews from Western Europe were better off than we. According to rumor, they received coffee and bread twice a day. In actuality, the Germans tricked them, allowing them to bring with them much of their possessions, and promising that they eventually would be settled somewhere far from Minsk. On one occasion, they were taken by officers, supposedly to that destination. In reality they arrived at an area near Minsk where graves were ready for them and they were shot and killed and all their belongings confiscated.

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 them.

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 driver’s 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.