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With Zorin in the Family Camp
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 Ben Villa
After Warsaw was conquered by the Germans in 1939, I escaped and arrived in Stolbtsy Minsk 5329' 2644'
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 Union.
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 confiscate food.
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 war effort.
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.