With Zorin in the Family
From the Minsk Yizkor book, p. 392
By Anatol Wertheim Anatol Wertheim was the head of a division
in the Jewish family camp created by Shalom Zorin. Anatol Wertheim immigrated
to Israel in 1956. Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan and Gil
After Warsaw was conquered by the Germans in 1939, I escaped and arrived
in Stolbtsy Minsk 53º29' 26º44'
As you know, Poland was divided by Germany and the Soviet Union, and
the eastern part of Poland, the regions of Volhin, Polsia (now in Ukraine)
, Eastern Galicia, and the regions of Vilna-Bialystock (now in Lithuania-
Belarus) were annexed by the Soviet Union. For me it was the first meeting
with the Jews of Belarus, both from territories that used to be part
of Poland and territories that belonged to the Soviet Union after 1920.
Many of the Soviet Jews, amongst them also Soviet Jews from Minsk, reached
"the liberated regions" as the Soviets called it. They were
appointed to different positions in the annexed areas. For me this meeting
was very fascinating.
Despite the fact that there was no apparent anti-Semitism in the Soviet
Union, there were no marks of any distinctly Jewish culture. Most of
these Soviet Jews could speak Yiddish and did not deny their Jewish
origin. Truly in the Soviet Union it was difficult to deny it since
in their Soviet identification cards it stated their nationality as
Jewish. But to be a Jew was only an origin for most of them, without
connection to Jewish culture, traditions, and political, nationalistic
aspirations. There was a Yiddish newspaper in Minsk, but it was essentially
a Russian newspaper written in the Yiddish language. The contents were
typically the same Russian data that you could find in other newspapers.
The new Soviet rulers tried to establish schools where the language
used was Yiddish in the liberated area after 1939, but these
schools had no Jewish content. No distinct Jewish history, no Jewish
literature were explored in the curriculum. Once again, only the language
was Yiddish, but the curriculum was purely Soviet. Soon the parents
said, "If it is so, why should we send our children here? Then
they would only have a more difficult time attending universities since
they do all their studies in Yiddish." If the content was the same,
they might as well go to Russian public schools.
In the year 1940, I was a teacher in such a Yiddish school, but the
number of students kept decreasing at that school. The population experienced
difficulties in getting accustomed to the Soviet rule. For us refugees
who came from the region of Poland conquered by the Germans, it was
relatively easy to get used to it. As refugees, we had little choice.
We accepted the jobs that were offered to us and adapted to the new
system. But the local Jews, who mainly were owners of stores or were
craftsmen, were not allowed to keep their stores and shops and had to
find clerical jobs with the unions (Soviet worker groups, cooperatives).
They were also fearful of retribution. There was no official anti-Semitism,
but we knew the Belarussian population had negative feelings toward
the Jews and we were fearful of pogroms. Ironically, there were even
some Jews in Stolbtsy waiting for the Germans to arrive as if they would
save them from the economic hardship that they experienced in the Soviet
The Germans entered Stolbtsy in June 22 nd of 1941. Immediately they
started the massacres. They killed some Jews to make the population
fearful and they ordered us to wear the yellow tags. They registered
all the men from age 16 to 45 and ordered them to go to work. A Judenrat
was established. Its main job was to coordinate the work assignments.
They started forcing Jews to work in Baranovitz and Minsk, and they
established the ghetto.
Originally the members of the Judenrat were the prominent and respected
Jews of the town. They tried to soften the punishments the Germans inflicted,
but eventually they were forced to fulfill the Germans' orders, and
that caused anger among the Jewish population. They started seeing them
as collaborators. Slowly they lost control and some thought that only
the lower element people who started taking control would keep them
alive. In 1942, rumors started arriving in the ghetto that there was
a resistance movement and some partisans arrived in the forest, Red
Army soldiers who were left behind when the army retreated, and were
now hiding in the forest. Some of them organized into fighting partisan
units. Some of them were truly of high caliber and fought the Germans
out of a genuine loyalty to the Soviet people Others who were with the
resistance were wild hooligans, and they would go to the villages and
Escaping and reaching the forest was not so difficult. The dilemma that
we were faced with was that the Germans threatened that if any Jew escaped,
the others would pay the consequences, and people felt great responsibility
to others who would be left in the ghetto. It was clear that during
the daily inspections, the Germans would find out some had escaped and
the entire ghetto would pay the consequences. Truly we all knew that
they would eventually kill us all, but we didn't know when they would
do it. How could you let yourself be responsible for shortening the
days of thousands of people in the ghetto? And who knows? People tended
to be eternal optimist,
Maybe something would change in the front and bring us a savior
in a short time
In Stolbtsy there was a main train station ( Brisk-Minsk railway)
and it was clear that it would not be difficult for us to sabotage the
trains, but once again we thought it would mean the annihilation of
the ghetto. So the escape to the forest started only after the first
Action, when it became clear that the Germans would carry out their
final plan, and thus we had nothing to lose.
In the winter of 1942-1943, the resistance movement in Belarus started
organizing according to military samples. There was a high command that
was connected to Moscow by air and by other ways. Each partisan headquarters
had battalions of 400-500 people based there, divided into three companies.
Each battalion was assigned to a different region where they would go
on resistance missions against the Germans, and they would also confiscated
supplies from hostile villagers. Each battalion was headed by three
people: the military commander who was responsible for the combat missions,
a political commissar who was responsible for policy and propaganda,
and the secret service commander who was responsible for sending out
scouts and spies and maintaining internal security.
A few battalions made up a brigade, and each brigade had a troika at
the head. Together a few brigades formed a division covering a larger
area. On top of everyone there was the supreme headquarters of the entire
Belarussian territory, and General CHERNISHAV Platon
who was the secretary of the party in the region of Baranovich before
the war was the supreme commander. Also there were some partisans who
were outside the military command in the forests of Belarus, wild units
of partisans. As you know, by the winter of 1942-1943, all the ghettoes
in Belarus were liquidated except for Minsk and Baranovich, which were
liquidated in October of 1943 (also Globoki).
When the Jews realized that the ghettoes were being liquidated, they
started running to the forest to reach the partisans, but they were
greatly disappointed. They thought that once they reached the forest
they would be saved, but many times they encountered the wild bands
of partisans who robbed them and sometimes even murdered them. There
was a rumor that the Jews brought treasures with them, so these partisans
treated them that way. Even when Jews encountered organized Soviet partisan
units, they were not happily received most of the time. Since many Jews
came with women, children, and old people who were not fighters, they
were usually rejected. Those people became obstacles to the resistance.
The reason they became obstacles was that the Germans who knew Jews
were hiding in the forest would come there to look for them, so this
caused more visits from the Germans which were unanticipated by the
resistance. The complaints went all the way to the supreme headquarters
of Platon. He became aware of the dilemma that was caused. Stalin's
order was that every Soviet citizen whose life was in danger must be
saved, so he tried as much as he could to use the Jews who came to the
forest as fighters with the partisans. At one point, Shalom Zorin came
to him and suggested that a family camp of Jews who could not be fighter
should be established. Platon realized that this could be the solution,
and helped Zorin as much as he could.
Who was Zorin? He was a Minsk native who escaped to the forest and took
part in the resistance. He was the commander of a partisan company.
He was a simple man, a carpenter by trade, and he didn't have a formal
education but he had strong leadership qualities that found _expression
and received accolades in the forest. In his camp there were trained
majors of the Red Army who were under his command and agreeably took
orders from him. He was the superior authority in the family camp, and
in the eyes of Platon, he was the superior authority in anything that
had to do with saving Jews. He could have made a huge career for himself
in the partisan movement, but he preferred to save Jews over his personal
career. He was a Jew that was blessed with a warm heart, and all his
energy was devoted to saving Jews.
When we arrived in the forest, I came to Zorin's camp. Zorin was the
main commander. There was a political commissar by the name Bigelman,
a Jew from Minsk and a Party member. The third person was a Jewish intellectual
from Minsk, he was the spy unit leader. I was the fourth commander,
and we became the four people in charge of the battalion.
This battalion started as a small group of 30 to 40 people with personal
weapons. It was a unit that was used for special jobs under the direct
command of Platon. In this battalion there was a company of 80 people
that had both military jobs and was responsible for supplying food for
the rest of the camp.
How were they able to arrange for food? Certain regions were designated
as having hostile villagers whom resisted the partisan movement, so
we were allowed to confiscate food from them. Clearly they did not give
to us willingly, so the unit had to fight them and the Belarussian police
for the food.
There were also some units of saboteurs who would put explosives on
the train tracks and in the train stations. Taking part in such sabotage
operations would also entail killing hundreds of Germans and confiscating
their ammunition. After the Germans would be killed or they had run
away from the train, we would organize a transfer of all the supplies
and ammunition that they had left behind. Sometimes you could find on
those trains some first-class liquor and champagne, and they would be
taken by the resistance.
What was the job of the rest of the people in the camp? Originally they
feared they would get demoralized from sitting around with nothing to
do in the forest, and other partisans could seem them as "parasites",
so Zorin found ways to make them productive. He established a large
central hospital. The Jewish chief doctor of the hospital (Mrs. Stein)
had a team of nurses and doctors under her. The hospital contained dozens
of beds. There was an orthopedic department, a gynecology department,
and internal medicine department. This hospital unit served the entire
partisan force in the area.
Small workshops were established in the camp that also served the partisans
in the area. They were for shoemaking (making new shoes and fixing old
ones), a bakery, and a small meat processing shop. Each partisan battalion
had a herd of cows and pigs, and they would bring their cows and pigs
to our camp. We had specialists who knew how to process the meat. In
the entire region, everyone ate meat that had been processed in the
camp of Zorin. Also there was a warehouse for building bombs. It was
a very primitive process, but those bombs functioned well. Also there
was a workshop for repairing weapons. It was amazing how inventive the
people were under such conditions in the forest. Without machines, and
only with their hands, they were able to accomplish all this.
In the camp there were about 70 children of different ages, so a school
was established with a few grades, and the teachers were Jews from Minsk.
The curriculum was the typical curriculum of a Soviet Russian school
and they also studied Yiddish there.
Also, they established an adult school there, and each person of age
had a job. This made everyone feel that they were contributing to the
In the Zorin camp they started celebrating Jewish holidays. In the forest
conditions, among people who had grown up in atmospheres without any
Jewish traditions, the celebrations were not as diligent as they would
have been otherwise. The only thing we would do was we would gather,
make a statement that it was a holiday and we would eat some better
food that day. We would inform them of the situation and sing songs.
I must say that the food in the camp was of pretty high quality.
How did I, who had no military experience, become a commander in the
battalion? When I met Zorin, after a short conversation he concluded
I was intelligent so he appointed me as the commander, and I stayed
at that job until the liberation.