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The Four Koussevitzky
In the War
by Shalom Sneidman
Summer of 1941
When the war started I was
serving in the Soviet army. Together with the rest of the soldiers in
my brigade, I fell as a POW near the town of Orsha (Mogilev, Belarus).
All the POWs were taken by the Germans to the camp. I was able to change
my uniform to plainclothes and escape imprisonment, intending to somehow
get to Smorgon, even if I would have to walk the entire way . In the
first village I entered, I encountered a German solider.
"Are you a Jew?"
Upon hearing this, the German
intended to stop and return me to the camp I came from. All of a sudden,
from afar, he saw another POW escapee, and so he started walking toward
him to arrest him, too. I used this moment while he was busy with the
other to escape. The first thing I did was to exchange my soldier boots
for wooden clogs so that I might be mistaken for a villager. Thus I
arrived in Minsk.
When I arrived, I saw a POW
camp surrounded by barbed wire. When I looked at the inmates, I recognized
some of them as people who had served in the same division as I. I went
all around the camp to avoid it and reached Minsk. This occurred on
the same days that all the Minsk Jews were put in a ghetto. I knew that
I could not rely on my costume and wooden clogs to disguise me and so,
quickly, I left the town. On the road between Minsk and Smorgon, I met
a farmer returning from Smorgon. I asked him if the situation was still
calm in Smorgon and its neighborhood. He answered me in a very angry
voice, saying, "Smorgon is burned to the ground. All of this happened
to you because you Jews breached your union with God. This is the punishment
from the Heavens."
I used only isolated trails
and out-of-the-way roads in my travels, avoiding any main roads so that
I would not encounter Germans. I entered the town of Horodok (near Volozhin),
where I met other people from Smorgon. A Jew by the name Berl Greiss,
from Smorgon, confirmed the reports of the farmer, saying the town had
been burned to the ground. He, together with other locals, had found
a temporary haven here. In Horodok, I also found my brother and sister.
There, I worked as a carpenter for some farmers until May 1942. That
month, we were caught by the Germans and sent to work in Krasne, where
the Nazis ran a concentration camp. All the Jewish residents were locked
in the ghetto, and the strong among them worked in the labor camp.
In 1942, some brave Jews
started escaping from the camp and joining the partisans. Good contacts
between the ghetto, the war camp prisoners, and the resistance were
established. A resistance movement now started within the camp. Propaganda
calling people to escape from the ghettos and go to the forest circulated.
The main issue was obtaining weapons, because only with weapons could
one survive outside of the ghetto. Anyone who had any money bought weapons
from the farmers or from Germans who were not of Nazi beliefs but had
come here to profit. They would sell to the Jews for a large amount
of money the personal weapons that they had received as soldiers, or
other weapons that they stole from the barracks, but some Jews among
us did not have any money, and had to steal weapons instead of buying
My workplace, a warehouse,
often housed weapons brought there for repair. One time, I broke in
between midnight to 1AM, broke through the door, and was thus able to
obtain guns for my sister and I, as well as some grenades and other
ammunition. Since we also worked in the forest, cutting wood, we hid
the weapons in a manger. The original Jews who had escaped prepared
an escape for the rest of us. We learned that anyone who had a gun or
grenade, or, better yet, a rifle, would be happily received by the partisans.
When I escaped to the partisans in the forest, my sister stayed in the
Before I left, I said to
her, "I'll go to the partisans and see if its an appropriate place
for you, and if so, I'll come back secretly to the ghetto and take you
Pesach Binder, from Smorgon,
escaped and joined the partisans before me, leaving his wife in the
ghetto. When we decided that the partisan camp was sufficiently safe
and women could be incorporated into our life there, we decided to return
to the ghetto and bring the women. Just before we were ready to do so,
Binder became sick. In the partisan camp, a Russian doctor diagnosed
him with typhus. As no typhus medicine was available, the partisans
decided to execute the sick so that an epidemic would not take root.
There was another man from Volozhin who was also sick with typhus, and
both were executed by the partisans.
There was a group of eleven
Jews in the camp who came shortly before us. They were now isolated
in a separate location, for the partisans feared they would get typhus.
I was put with them, and although we lived separately, we received food
from the brigade. The Jewish members of the brigade were fearful that
all of us would be executed and were very downcast, fearing that they
could not save us. We were very lucky, for a Jewish doctor who came
to the camp and checked us found that we did not have typhus. We returned
to the brigade and arranged a new unit made up of all the people who
had recently arrived from the separate group.
Shortly after, we learned
that the Russian doctor who checked us was really a spy serving the
Germans and planned to kill us. The head of the brigade was a Soviet
man by the name of Ivanov. In this brigade there were hundreds of Jews,
but in spite of it, or perhaps because of it, the brigade was riddled
Two weeks later, before the
Jewish holiday Purim, we sent a carriage to bring my sister from the
ghetto, but were too late. Jewish Krasne had been annihilated, and all
its residents had been killed the previous day. Everyone had been killed
except for the wife and child of Binder, who were miraculously saved
from the execution and arrived at the camp. [editor's note: contrary
to this account, others who came from Horodok and Krasne hid and later
escaped to the forest. There were close to a dozen, amongst them were
members of the Gringaus family.]
In May of 1943, Germans narrowed in on our camp, and many of our comrades were killed in the ensuing scuffle. During that year, the Red Army parachuted some forces near our camp, and among them were Jews who had been in my paratrooper unit. The Red Army met and liberated us in the early summer months of 1944. On October second of 1944 I returned to Smorgon. The entire town had been burned to the ground by bombs and shelling. From Smorgon, I traveled to Lodz in Poland, and then to Italy. From there, I finally immigrated to the land of Israel.