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“Rakov under Nazi Occupation”
Written by survivors from rakov
Page 141
Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan
First we would like to record some preliminary notes about Rakov from before and during the war. The Jewish community of Rakov had a very special spirit that was unique to her. She was a very lively, progressive, and intelligent community. She was known for her school, her large library, and synagogues. She was also known for her mercantile and products. There was a Jewish community of two thousand people. Rakov, which was the most ancient of all the shtetls around her, was the very first to be annihilated by the enemy, may his name be erased. Rakov was consumed by fire while all the shtetls around her were still standing. As flames spread on the town of Rakov, all the Jews of the surrounding shtetls were advised that they will receive the punishment of death if they sheltered any of the escaped Jews from the Rakov massacre who were now running around like chased dogs on the roads surrounding Rakov. Some of the escapees did manage to arrive to the forest and joined the partisans or found shelter amongst acquaintances, who were Jews and Christians alike. During this period of horror, destruction, and annihilation of the Jews of Rakov, we received information from the partisans who survived and now live with us here in Israel. Some of them stayed in forest the entire time but received details of all that occurred in the town until its dying moment, about which no Jewish witness who was in the town that day could testify since not one Jew survived. Each and every one of the nine hundred and fifty souls was sacrificed and only ashes were left.
As told by Moshe Pogolensky:…
On the 26th of June, 1941, the Germans entered Rakov. It took but a few days for the first victims to fall. Some of our Christian neighbors started propagating slander to the SS German authorities about the Jewish community and forty-nine young Jewish men were taken out of their homes. They were taken to Formortchzina, about forty kilometers from Rakov, and there they were executed. Actually, amongst them were also entire families, like Paretz Vilkometz with his entire household, Avraham Uri Horovitz with his young son, and others. At first, we did not know where to find them since we were not allowed to walk in the streets. A few days passed and some of the Christians said that they saw their bodies inside a hole in the ground. As soon as the rumors spread in the shtetl, three members of Chevre Kadisha, the Jewish burial society, immediately volunteered to give them a proper burial, despite the perils involved in doing such mitzvah. Among them, Israel Yitzhak, the smith, Hirshska, their ingle, and Yakov Cholsky, volunteered to bring them to Jewish burial. They secretly went to the killing field, removed the cover of the hole in which the bodies were thrown, and quietly took all the victims they found, and put them on buggies and took them to the Jewish cemetery for burial. Sadly, the Germans found out about this, discovering the three men. They immediately took the men away and executed them and their remains were never found. Fear and darkness spread amongst the Jewish population in town. Each person tried to find a hiding place until the terrors would pass. Not one Jew was seen outside. Everyone closed himself in his home with his shutters shut and there was a deathly quiet surrounding the town. After a long time, we received a permit to bring the rest of the fallen Jews among the forty-nine to burial. Not two weeks passed and the wounds were still bleeding. The town was still filled with the pain of losing its first victims. Once again the Germans arrived and took fourteen men and murdered them and no one found their burial place and once again fear spread and the shadow of death hovered over each Jew in town.
In the mean time, the Germans established a Judenrat, a committee of Jews that would be the mediator between the Jews of the community and the German occupiers. The members of the committee were Mula Alperovitch, Yosef Oberjansky, Chaim Greenholtz, and the son in law of old Milshtein. At that point in time I still lived in Starya-Rakov. Starya-Rakov was a ranch that I leased. Since the days before the War broke out, I harvested and plowed the fields and grew potatoes and other vegetables. I also had cows and I built a successful agricultural farm. One day, during the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana in September of 1941, my brothers (Unclear who is telling the story) Moshe and Kelman Alperovitch, and Shalom Kaplan, came running to me, telling me that a few days before, the SS surrounded the town and must have been preparing to slaughter members of the community once again. After much begging and crying, the German authorities agreed to receive a large sum of money in exchange for the lives, and they left the town, but everyone knew that this was a temporary postponement and the fate of the Jews in town was very uncertain. The three men hid in my place until Friday and when they saw that nothing happened, they imagined that they were safe. They left my home and returned to town. But what they initially ran away from did occur. Although the SS let go of its satanic idea for a week, on Monday, immediately after the Rosh Hashana holiday of 1941, the town was surrounded once again by the SS soldiers. They took all the Jews to the central market. They took all of the holy Torahs and other holy books out of the synagogues and put all of them in one big pile, compelling the entire Jewish community to witness the burning. While the flames were consuming the books, the Germans started torturing and taunting the Jewish victims, who stood shaking as they watched their holy books being destroyed. The murderers exhibited a most exulted and raving behavior. the Germans caught the son in law of Puchinsky and threw him in the flames, where he was burned alive to the eyes of the entire community. The SS men ordered everyone to dance around the pyre and sing “Hatikva” (the current Israeli anthem about the eternal Jewish sou). This torture did not satisfy the Germans. As soon as the fire was extinguished, they ordered everyone to give them their hidden money. Here I would like to mention that I was told that Abraham, who had a wooden leg, was searched, and four hundred gold rubles were found in his prosthetic limb. Once everyone was searched, the Germans commenced with an awful plan. They took thirty-one Jews and sent them to the cemetery, where they ordered them to dig a huge, deep hole. As soon as the hole was ready, they separated the men and the women who stood in the central market. They took one hundred and twelve men to the cemetery. They pushed them near the hole and stood behind them and shot them one by one into the hole. During the entire time when the killing occurred, the thirty-one Jews who dug the hole were told to lie motionless on the ground and as soon as the last of the hundred and twelve victims were killed, they were told to get up and cover their bodies and fill the hole. Like this, one hundred and twelve people found their death.
The Ghetto:
As we told you, the third slaughter was bigger than the two before it. It is very hard for me to describe the fear and the depression that spread within the remnants of the Jewish population that survived. Most of the men at that point were annihilated and the few who survived tried to hide. Almost every home suffered a victim and each and every family was in mourning. No one knew what other tortures the enemy would bring in the coming days but one thing was clear: the Germans were planning a horrible annihilation. The words, “today it was them, tomorrow it will be the rest of us,” were heard in every conversation. It was as if this sentence was constantly hovering over the community an d the ambiance was bleaker than a most grave depression. No hope for survival or renewal spread to every home. The next morning there was an order that everyone immediately transfer to a small area that would become a ghetto. The Germans gave people very short time to take their belongings out of their homes to their new surroundings. Panic spread and everyone tried to gather some belongings while the Polish police and the SS stood behind them, beating them with batons in order to rush them. As soon as the hour arrived, all the Jews were shut and imprisoned inside a small ghetto that contained the yard of the synagogue and a few neighboring houses. Everyone was taken to this area, as a herd would be driven to a slaughterhouse. About nine hundred and fifty people were in this small ghetto and here under surveillance and in terrible deprivation, they were forced to live their last weeks until the day of their annihilation, and their homes were left open, becoming community property, enabling Christian neighbors to steal and confiscate Jewish belongings.
Not many days passed and the SS people came to my ranch and ordered me and my family to go to the ghetto. I was able to put food on a buggy, taking flour, potato, butter, cheese, and vegetables, which I transferred to the Rakov ghetto, where I lived with my brothers. Here the Germans did not leave us alone. A week after I arrived, the SS came and demanded that we immediately supply them with four caracol fur coats, some gold, and three hundred kilograms of leather for shoes. It took but twenty minutes for all of this to be collected. The next week the Germans said that they wanted ten Jews to work Shpobli, where they established a communication station. They took my brother Fabe, Avraham Milshtein, Baruch Fidelholtz, Zyama Solovyetchik, Leibe Botvinik, the son of Dan, and me. For eleven weeks we worked in the station. Every two weeks on Saturday night they took us back home and on Monday morning we would be returned to the camp.
The annihilation of the ghetto:
One morning the Christians who worked with us in the station came to us and said, “You must know that the ghetto was annihilated. The entire Jewish community of Rakov was burned within a few hours.” We were aghast to hear this. We could not continue working. Our hearts refused to accept this. We begged two Christians to go there and confirm this news. They agreed and when they returned they told us that it was, in fact, true. Here is what we found out after some time: At dawn on Monday in February of 1942, the ghetto was surrounded and the entire Jewish community, nine hundred and fifty souls, was put in the yard of the synagogue. They took ten of the healthiest people and separated them. The rest were taken group by group to the entrance of the synagogue, where they were shot and killed by automatic machine guns. The ten separated people were ordered to throw the individual bodies in the synagogue. As soon as the last of the people were thrown in the synagogue, the ten people were pushed inside without shooting them. They shot the building and set it afire and everyone was burned to death. Some time later during that day the Germans came to our station and said that four of us must return to Rakov. Since we already knew of what had occurred there, we somehow were able to escape and that evening we ran away to one of the Christian people we knew. He was very fearful of the Germans and so he had us hide above the furnace, covered so no one could see us. His fear was not unfounded. While we were in our hideout, at about midnight, the SS opened the front door and interrogated the owner of the home, who answered them in a very naïve tone, claiming to have no knowledge of any Jews. It was a miracle that they believed him and left without searching the home. We knew that we could not stay there and that night we left the generous farmer’s house, fleeing to the forest. We walked during the nighttime and during the day we hid in the forest under bushes and trees until we managed to get to the shtetl of Horodok. We arrived there early in the morning and knocked on the first door we saw but no one answer. In the morning we saw Jews going to the synagogue with talit in their arms as if nothing had changed, but no one agreed to take us home since doing so would have been a death sentence to their community. We were very hungry but had no choice but to return to our haven of the last few days in the forest. The forest did not ask questions and did not check. Amongst the trees and bushes we could escape the eye of the enemy that seemed to be awaiting for us on every path we took outside of the forest. What prayer our heart carried during those awful days to the silent trees of the forest, the trees where we were allowed to reside by without them fearing of German reprisals. Our hearts cried for all that was there once and that was now destroyed, for our dear ones that were cut from life by a cruel hand, and for theirs and our doom. We were wandering around like rabid dogs, as not one house could take us in. Our relentless hunger forced us to make one last attempt. When evening came we returned to Horodok from the Molodetchna side. At first we could not find any home that would open the door for us. As soon as we knocked on the door and they saw who we were, from the fear of the Germans, who told them that whoever let a Jew from Rakov in would be immediately killed, they shut their doors. Eventually, after some begging, the head of the Jewish community decided to give us a home for one night, as well as some food to sustain us. When morning came, we walked to Labadova. On the way we passed some German work camps were Jewish people were doing forced labor.
In contrast to our treatment in Horodok, in Labadova, the Jews treated us like brothers. They supported us and added us to the names of their community as if we lived there before, and they even made me a member of the Labadova Judenrat. At that time we were altogether eleven men from Rakov – Nachum Greenholz, Yosef Dinas the carriage driver, Velvel Kaplan, Elieser Motznov, my brother Fiva, and a few others. One day we received an order to supply some workers for a labor camp. With fifty other men, I enlisted, and we were all sent to the camp near Krasne. I must note here that during my stay in the camp, the people of Labadova supported me, as well as the other forty-nine men, and sent bread to each of us.
Three weeks after I arrived in the Krasne camp, the Jewish community of Labadova was annihilated. Sometime later the Jews of Krasne were annihilated. Jewish life in the area perished and only in the labor camp there were a few Jewish men, but their days were numbered too. Only a few remnants who miraculously survived were wandering, separated from each other, through the paths of the forest. At that point in time, with me in the Krasne camp was the last rabbi of Rakov, Rabbi Israel Alperin. One day the Germans sent him to Lida, ordering him to bring some people to work. He fulfilled the order and together with the Jewish people from Lida, he was forced to go on a train, which was then shot, leaving no possibility to be open. Somehow he was able to break the window and jump out. He returned to the Krasne camp but at the end was destroyed with all the Jews of Krasne. On the day that the Krasne camp was annihilated,
We were somehow able to escape to the forest, our one brave shelter, and from there we went to a Christian acquainted in Dobrovi, a small, obscure, rural place where we hid until the day of liberation.
The day of the liberation:
I remember those days very well. We started hearing about the retreat of the Germans and we greatly anticipated hearing every rumor of their withdrawal from our areas. Each day came with new information about their leaving another neighborhood. One day we heard a clear sound of Russian artillery. We heard explosions and battle planes following the retreating army. Rumors started that Smolensk and Minsk were freed. Finally, we found out that our area was freed from the hands of the German annihilator. The entire area from Minsk to Vilna was cleared of Germans. We breathed a big sigh of relief and left our hideout. I thanked the Christian man who hid me for all his good deeds and I then walked to Rakov.
truly it was what was once a place called Rakov. The houses still stood but there was a deathly silence in the street. Even the Christians who first took the homes of the Jews, ran away, fearing revenge. One by one, the few remnants of the shtetl returned. Clearly, the first thing we did was to go to the former ghetto, which was now a brotherly grave. For a long hour, we prayed for the Jewish martyrs near the mound where their bodies lay. This mound was now the only remnant of the Jews of Rakov. The earth was mixed with their burnt bones. We stood in silence and let our tears cascade. As soon as the Catholic priest of the town found out that a few of us returned, he called us and asked if there was anything we wished him to do. We requested that on Sunday he announce to the Church that the Christians should return what they robbed from the Jewish homes. He did as we asked but only one man returned the winter fur coat that belonged to old Alperovitch .The rest refused to return the items they had stolen. We sold the fur coat for food, which we used to fund the creation of a memorial grave marker for the mound full of bodies. The man who created the gravestone was a Christian man who knew how to engrave letters. We took a group picture by the memorial. From Rakov we left to Minsk. We found out that Malhoi, who was the police commandant in Rakov during the German occupation, was arrested. When he was the head of the police, he would order the most beautiful Jewish girls in town to come to him and he would torture them. When we saw him in the yard of the prison in Minsk, he acted naively and put his hand out as if to shake David Greenholtz’s hand, as if he was a dear acquaintance. David Greenholtz immediately slapped him twice on his cheeks in front of everyone and left.
Testimonies from the day of the annihilation:
We found out that Hana Milshtein was able to hide in Ri, a place where she would go every summer for vacation prior to the German occupation. Naively, she was hoping that here she would find shelter amongst the farmers who had been her friends but this was in vain. Her Christian acquaintances told the SS about her location and during that day she was returned to Rakov. The synagogue was still burning and they threw her in the flames. The Christians said that she stood there tall and proud and just before they threw her in the flames she yelled loud to the Germans, “Remember, you evil, today you burn us, but tomorrow you will be burned…” The wife of Povolonsky said, “I was hiding in Minsk with a false passport as a Russian woman. When the Jews of Minsk were annihilated, I escaped to Rakov. My head was covered with the headgear of a farmer and no one paid any attention to me. It happened to be on the day that the Jews of Rakov were annihilated. From afar I heard the loud screams that reached up to the skies. I saw the flames coming from the synagogue where everyone was burned. I quickly ran to the forest where I joined the partisans and there I stayed until the day of the liberation.”
Words from Nachum Greenholtz:
I was among the people who were taken from the market in Rakov to the road of Buzmanu, where a hundred and twelve Jews were annihilated. A few others as well as I were able to escape. The Germans shot at us but I ran quickly to the forest. I spent the night there and in the morning I returned home. That morning all the Jews of Rakov were forced to go to the ghetto, where the Judenrat was established, with the foremost duty of enforcing all the orders of the police and the SS on the Jewish population in the ghetto. Amongst its duties was to send Jewish people for forced labor on a daily basis. Every day between one hundred and two hundred people left the ghetto for different work places. I was taken every day to work in the Polish school. It is hard to talk about cultural life in the ghetto. In the morning we did not know if we would survive to see the night and at night we did not know if we would survive to see the morning. Food-wise, there was a sufficient amount of food since we were able to hide some money, and for large monetary sums, Christians and even some Germans bartered food. The ghetto was awfully crowded. Each room contained about fifteen people or more. All the cooking or baking was done outside. We somehow were able to keep very primitive sanitary conditions that saved us from infections and plagues. We lived in the ghetto for four months, from October of 1941 till February of 1942. As time passed, our hearts wanted to believe that all those who survived the three actions and were imprisoned in the ghetto would survive to see the day of liberation….until the second of February,1942 arrived. On that day I was working as usual at the Polish public school with my relative, Shmuel Greenholtz. All of the sudden, the sturutz (the guard of the school) came to us and said, “The Germans surrounded the entire time and I heard from a very reliable source that they are planning to annihilate all of you. You must escape.” We left work immediately and locked ourselves inside a field bathroom. From the cracks in the wall we could see the Germans searching and checking and surrounding the town. Later we saw the flames coming from the ghetto and we instantly understood what was happening. We heard the sound of the screams. It was a very cold night and the fear and panic seemed to only make us colder. We sat there as if we were frozen and had lost touch with ourselves. We did not speak the entire day. When it became very dark, we entered the house of the school guard. He secretly let us drink and eat and warm ourselves a bit. We knew that we could not stay there. He let us out and showed us the way to Horodok. The night was very dark and very cold. We kept walking, two lonely brokenhearted Jews who tried to save their souls and left behind them everyone they knew and loved all that were now annihilated.
After about four hours of walking, we arrived at a village where we knew a Christian farmer. He let us in and gave us some food and warm tea. We did not stay there long. We continued walking. When morning came, we were near the road to Horodok. We continued walking and at four in the afternoon we arrived at the first homes of the shtetl. We found that the Jews of Horodok were under the illusion that the annihilation would not occur there. Rakov was no more. Molodetchno was annihilated even prior to that. But the Jews of Horodok, Lebadova, Kurenitz, and Lavda were under a dangerous illusion. They were still living in their homes and working in forced labor camps for the Germans. There were even some of them who made business dealings with the Germans and their collaborators. They were too fearful to let us in they sent us to Lebadova. There we stayed for five days and from there they sent us to Vileika. In Vileika, we met with Shmukler, who was originally from Rakov and had been living in Vileika for several years at that point. He received us graciously and let us stay with him for a few days, and then sent us to Kurenitz. In Kurenitz, the Jews worked for the Germans in different places with some of the Christians. We were sent to the Linkovitz ranch, where we stayed for a month. The heads of this ranch were people form the Netherlands. They did not treat us any differently from the rest of the workers. We were altogether twenty Jewish men, mostly from Kurenitz, one from Molodetchna, one from Vileika, and two from Rakov. Meanwhile, a new element came to the area: the Soviet partisans. Large troops of soviet partisans established themselves in the forests of the area. The Germans were unable to fight them. In the labor camp, we found out about their deeds. They would fight police stations and SS camps. Also, they would burn their (the German and their collaborators) barns and factories. One time they attacked the ranch where we worked. Finding out about the partisans kept us longing to join them. After a strong internal questioning, a few men left the work and ran into the forest to join the Russian partisans under the name of Mastit (“revenge”). Quickly, we were able to join their ranks and take part in a terrorist mission, focusing on exploding German army trains. Also, we were able to buy weapons from the local population or steal them from the Germans, selling them to the partisans for large amounts of money. One day I was sent with another youth to Vileika to buy weapons. We found that the spirit had changed there. Many felt that there was a big tragedy looming over them. At that point, many of the Jews of Kurenitz were sent to Vileika as refugees to work there. Still, they did not know that the day of their annihilation was so near. On that day, while we were putting the weapons in sects where we were gathering the weapons, the town was surrounded by German soldiers. Many of the Jews were taken to be annihilated. It took but two hours for everyone to be killed. My friend was killed with them but I was able to hide near the school. I had with me a gun and a grenade. I said to myself that I would fight before I would fall into their hands. A miracle seemed to occur as no one found me the entire day. As soon as darkness came, I came down from my hiding place and left for the forest. At midnight I arrived at a farm. I knocked on the first window I saw. When the farmer opened the door, I pointed a gun at him and ordered him to harness his horse and buggy and take me to my troop. The Christian man did not show any resistance since the partisans were very respected and feared. Not only the farmers feared them, but also the Germans were afraid to search them in the forest. The farmer to me to Stoinka, a village that was at the hands of the partisans. There I rested for a few days and returned to my troop. During that time, our contacts with Moscow became stronger. We received information from Moscow and we were also able to communicate back with them. The solitary unit became almost like an army and fought with the enemy behind the line with large amounts of weapons and many ranks like a true army. This forest was vast and thick. People were able to reach Moscow. One day in June of 1943, an order came from Moscow to send a troop of young men to train in a sabotage and front-line fighting unit. I was sent with this troop. We were able to go all the way from the Putscha of Nilvoki to Moscow, where we spent two months in intensive training. When the training ended, we returned all the way back until we reached Gomel, on the river Berzina. This was an area of thick forest where no man walked, making it an ideal place to fight an underground war. There was a troop of four hundred people there. We received weapons from the Soviet Union. Russian planes would come to the occupied area and with parachutes, they would bring weapons. As time passed, we were able to build a field airport that the soviet planes were able to bring weapons. One day the Germans were able to detect the camp and they surrounded the area with a big army. They started shooting at us. The entire day they were shooting but at night they retreated. During the night we returned to Gomel and took a lot of weapons. We returned to the area and fought the enemy and destroyed them. From that point we did a lot of terrorist activities and we arrived all the way to Vilna. On this long road we were able to burn their camps and destroy some trains and police stations. During all these missions, the Jews who were in the ranks of the partisans felt strong emotions of revenge and that led them to be heroic in their fight. Finally, May of 1944 came and the Soviet Army started a huge offensive to our area. In a short time, the entire area was cleared from the retreating enemy. The fight of the underground partisans was done. Now most partisans joined the Red Army. After the liberation, I moved to Minsk, where I lived for a year. From Minsk I moved to Lodge in Poland and then to Germany and Italy and in 1947 I arrived in Israel.
Words by Aaron Greenholtz:
As the war between Russia and Germany started in September of 1941, I was in Vilna together with my father, my uncle Yosef Greenholtz, and my sister, Genya, who was twelve years old. Rumors and information arrived to us about the tragedies that befell Rakov. We found out that there were forty-nine victims. Still, we decided not to pay attention to the rumors and returned to our town for many reasons. On September 27th, 1941, we hired a truck and succeeded in arriving to a village near Rakov by the name of Marino. We entered the house of a farmer who was an old friend of ours. To our question, “What is happening in Rakov?” we immediately received an exact and simplistic answer. “Rakov is annihilated and nothing is left.” We started inquiring and investigating these rumors. We sent the farmer to Rakov to find out the exact answer and he returned saying that Rakov was not annihilated but there were 112 Jewish men who were killed in front of the town during that black day of Rosh Hashanah 1941. These 112 men were killed in front of the entire Jewish community and since this horrible event left the area in such deep shock, all around the villages, rumors spread that the entire community was annihilated. Although he treated us very nicely, he did not let us stay there more than two days since he feared his neighbors would inform the authorities about him. We were forced to find another hiding place. My sister Genya was given by my father to a Christian woman who worked for us for a long time but instead of hiding her in her house, she brought her to the ghetto in Rakov and gave her to my aunt and there she was annihilated with all the holy martyrs of Rakov. We were not able to find a permanent hiding place and were forced to wander from one place to another, always in grave danger. During the day we hid in the forest and at night we wandered through villages, looking for food in the farms to sustain us. Finally, we arrived at an isolated farm about five kilometers away from Rakov. This farm contained a few laborers. We tried to get work there but the other laborers threatened that we must leave at once or they would inform the Germans of our wandering. Once again, we took our packages and continued with our wandering. We arrived to a farmer who we knew for a long time. We entered his barn and slept there for the night. The next noon we entered his home and all of the sudden, he yelled, “Quickly escape! The Germans are coming!” We jumped out the window on the way to the forest and ran. They chased us and it was clear to us that they wanted to kill us themselves. After running for some hours, they finally let us go and in the darkness of the night we arrived in the forest, where we found shelter from the enemy. Through the entire night we were lost in the forest, looking for some road but in the early morning hours did we find a road that took us to the house of a Christian man who had initially provided us with shelter. Meanwhile, winter came and as soon as the first snow came, we realized that we could not hide in the forest any longer. We were dressed in summer clothing and were freezing. Father went in the middle of the day to Dvorko and a known anti-semite Christian who hated Jews. Although my father risked his life by asking him to stay there, surprisingly this Christian accepted us very graciously and we lived with him a very long time. From there we moved to the house of Ritzkosky, where we lived for a month. He informed us of what was happening in the area of Rakov. Just at that time, there was a plague in the village and people got sick and the farmer demanded that we leave. We did as he asked and wandered from place to place. Although we hated doing it, we left the area and went to Horodok. There we met with Nachum and Shmiel Greenholtz, who told us about the annihilation at Rakov.