In the Jaws of the Nazi Beast: Memoirs of a Vilejka Partisan
By Yosef Norman
On that wintry night in the beginning of 1940 our family members who lived for many generations in Vilejka were "bestowed" with a Soviet ID cards with the infamous stamp "Capitalists" The new classification forced the family to move away. Undesired "bourgeois capitalists" were not allowed to reside in Vilejka since Vilejka was the district capital. And now we were expelled from our home where we were born, raised, and educated, so we were forced to look for a home to rent in another town. We rented a small room in Kurenets and started a new life in the new Soviet homeland. Once in a while we would visit Vilejka and we would get very upset seeing strangers who benefited from our hard work and took our home and business from us. The first taste of the Bolshevik liberation was more than a bit bitter for us.
Our house became an office building for the municipal authorities. Shortly we found a job in Vilejka, but the job was not a permanent job and it wasnt official. My brother, Rafael, was imprisoned and received a year of hard labor since he resisted when they named us bourgeois capitalists and confiscated our home. He only returned to Vilejka about a month before World War II after being released from the army and was taken to work in the agricultural department.
With all the pandemonium that started on June 22nd 1941, when Molotov announced on the radio about the invasion of Germans on Russia, our first reaction was to go to Vilejka and see what happened to our home. At that point we started visiting Vilejka everyday, seeing our house, and in the evening we would return to Kurenets to hide there. Only on Wednesday the 25th of June did our family return to our old home in Vilejka after all the civil servants left. For some reason, the fear of the Germans and the need to escape to the Soviets didnt seem to us so pressing since we were classified as bourgeois and were not welcomed by the Soviets. Since some of us recognized that the Soviets claims of freedom, equality, and independence were only empty slogans, most of the family decided it was better to just stay put, since escape would only mean escape from one hell to another. Now this attitude really hurt us in the long run. My brother Rafael, Muleh Levinson, and Itzhak Zimmerman on the other hand, immediately took their bicycles and escaped to cross the old Soviet border, but on the way they met with Germans who returned them to Vilejka. My brother Nathan was supposed to join the Red Army after receiving a conscription notice on June 23rd, 1941, but since all the officers escaped to the Soviet Union, he didnt join.
Shortly after we entered our home, we still didnt bring our possessions or clothes, and a fire started in the nearby barracks that was a huge wooden building that was used by the Secret Police during the Polish times and later on became the headquarters of the NKVD under the Soviets. It seemed that the Soviets didnt wish to leave behind all their papers that had to do with internal investigations, so someone burned them all. We worked very hard to extinguish the fire since there was a very strong wind coming from the direction of the house of Yakov Norman who was next to us, and we thought that maybe the houses, which were all made of wood, would burn. Luckily we were able to save most of the houses and buildings except for the wooden bridge on the River Vilia, which was totally burned.
On that Wednesday the 25th of June, the first Germans entered Vilejka riding on motorcycles. After a few days, a never-ending parade of infantrymen started marching through the town. They went from Smorgon and the village Kalafi, east in the direction of Witbesk-Smolensk. Some of the Germans who stayed the night in Vilejka demanded a place to sleep, so they took me and other Jews and brought us to the gymnasia (high school) and they ordered us to clean all the rooms that were used for science projects. We were ordered to throw all the scientific tools and dishes and bottles into the garbage. In our yard they established a kitchen. Whenever they would take water from the well for cooking, they ordered us to drink it first to make sure that the well was not poisoned.
Shortly after, an S.De troop arrived. Their first order concerned all the Jewish residents. From now on, every Jew must wear an armband with a yellow star on his left arm. Inside the Jewish star we were ordered to embroider the word "Jude" in Latin letters. From now on, no Jew was allowed to walk on the sidewalk. We were only allowed to go on the streets, and we were only allowed to walk one behind the other, no two Jews side by side. No Jew was allowed to be in the street from 8 in the evening until 6 in the morning. Since many of the Jews were lucky enough to escape by train (there was a station in Vilejka) to the Soviet Union during the first days, many of their homes were left empty.
Soon the Christian neighbors from the town and neighboring villages realized that, so every day they would come and look around the houses, and at night they would break in and loot whatever they could, breaking whatever they didnt want to take. Sometimes they would do the same to the homes of Jews who didnt flee, and rob them. On the other hand, some of the Jewish residents decided to give some of their belongings to their Christian neighbors, things like jewelry, dishes, and clothes for safekeeping, not knowing what the future would bring. A few of the young people in our street decided to guard the street from the looters.
On that Wednesday evening, the 25th of June, which was two days after the Soviet authorities left Vilejka, I was near the house of Rev Aron David, and all of a sudden I heard loud steps. It was already dark outside. I was worried that it was the neighbors trying to steal Jewish possessions.
(page missing, but from memory we know he goes on to describe the Nazis first action against the Jews of Vilejka)
It was a regular day in the Jewish month of Tamuz. I decided not to go to work. I left the house through the gardens to the shore of the river and decided to hide during the day near the river. The swimming shore was filled with Nazi soldiers, so I lay down on a distant spot, as if I came to get some sun, and lay there, counting the passing minutes. The soldiers who also lay there getting some sun didnt pay attention to me, but at as soon as I got up to leave the shore, two Nazi soldiers in uniform saw me and ordered me to go to work wearing only a bathing suit. Near the little bridge that would take you to the synagogue, there was a temporary bakery. Here I was ordered to work with an electric saw. They would bring wood and order us to cut it.
In the bakery a few Jews worked, amongst them the very old teacher Rodnitzky, who were ordered to carry water from the river for the mix that they were making. There were a few Christian youths from the orphanage who also worked there. Since I was the same age as them they started bothering me and yelling at me, "All the Jews are already eating dust. How come you are still alive?" It seems to me that those Christian guys were the direct reason why I made the fateful decision to escape to the partisans and avenge the honor of the Jewish nation. So at four, when I was registered as working there from that point on, and ordered to return the next day, they gave me a little bit of bread as a sort of reward for my job, I decided not to return to work.
A few army brigades that settled into town needed workers to clean the rooms and to prepare wood for the fireplaces, and also a few professional jobs. So everyday, the Germans would come in pairs from house to house and kidnap Jewish men and women to come to the workplaces. While they were doing that they would also take from the homes whatever they liked. One day the soldiers came to our house. I just had enough time to take from my parents home a sword which I had found earlier in the brigade house that was left behind by the Soviets, and immediately I lay in my bed, pretending to be very sick. The SS people took my sister Gala with another five Jewish people, amongst them the son of Floman and Belshinsky. They put them in the basement of the courthouse and during the day they ordered them to clean, and at night they slept in the basement so they couldnt escape from the job.
With all these problems, the Jews of Vilejka couldnt stay alone in their homes, so people who were alone joined families and lived in a few bigger apartments. The rest of the homes were locked, empty of people, but once again this made the Christian neighbors and the soldiers break the doors and loot all the property. Now there were many soldiers in town and they took for themselves the best apartments that had previously been occupied by the Soviet authorities.
So all the cleaning of the offices and the apartments was now in the hands of the Jews, as was the laundry and tree cutting. In return all they received was a piece of bread. One day, the town mayor Spiszka, came to the bakery of David Mordechai Norman, and my father happened to be there, and so was Floman. So he said to them, "Clean the ovens. From now on you will receive flour and you will divide it according the number of people, 300 grams per person. You will receive ration tickets for bread." Everyone was very happy since we were practically starving at that point. The baker David Mordechai did all the preparation and together with his son Muleh they started baking bread for the Jewish community. The flour was received from Lunka Yagilovich, who was the head of the municipal bakery. Lunka received extra secret funds to add a little bit to the flour. This extra charge kept rising every day, but it was still worthwhile to us, since we received only a little more than 300 grams a day, so our dependence on exchanging our possessions for food with our Christian neighbors subsided.
The bakery became a community center for the Jews in Vilejka. The people who were taking part in the baking were Asher Floman, David Mordechai Norman, Moshe husband of Raisel Kopelovich, and my father Baruch Norman. They became voluntary Judenrat. The Germans would come to them for Jewish workers and for beds, bedding, furniture, etc. The mayor of the town, Spiszka, said that we must have a census if we were going to give bread by tickets. We must know the exact numbers of tickets to be given for bread, and everyone who was accepting the bread must repay by working. This census that was done showed that officially there were 300 Jews left in Vilejka, amongst them I must say there were many who were not originally residents of Vilejka but were refugees of nearby towns who found their way here. Generally Vilejka became a transfer place for Jews that came from Minsk, Boronovich and other places in the area.
I remember that Nyama Kapilovich lived with us for a whole month and afterwards returned to Vilna. Our house was always full of guests who stayed with us for either days or weeks. The streets of the town were empty of people. The Jews were not allowed to walk around except to go to work, and as I said before, a few families lived together, both out of fear and in order to share in expenses. Anyone who had to go somewhere had to go through the yards or climbing fences. During that summer, a few of our neighbors like Zundel Henia and David Mordechai would come to our house everyday and always asking the same thing, "What will become of us? Youre so smart, how would this all end?"
The German radio would be operated the entire day, every day, and it was filled with Propaganda for the Polish and Russian citizens saying that the Jews and the Communists killed all the Christians and sucked their blood, and disrespected them and took their property. And now Stalin escaped through a tunnel with all the officials. And now the Germans were standing on the gates of Moscow. Through the entire year they would repeat the same news. We understood that there was something behind it, so could we have any hope, even a small one, for our salvation?
Although the IDs we received from work should have protected us from kidnappings, it didnt always help. Whenever the Gestapo or SS needed more workers, they would just take us. So how did we financially survive? Its very difficult to answer that. All that any of the Jews wanted was a piece of bread and potatoes, which became very difficult to get. No one could make any money except for a few professionals who were still needed by the Christian neighbors. For their jobs they received potatoes, butter, and some vegetables. The rest would sell their clothes and other possessions for food. Once they had nothing to barter with, they were practically starving since 300 grams was truly insufficient.
The Second Action
On the 29th of July 1941, at six in the morning, SS soldiers spread in small groups all over the town and started searching the homes. When they found Jews they would get them out of their beds and beat them up with rubber bats and ordered them to immediately get dressed without even explaining to them what was going on. Eventually they announced that all would be taken to work outside the town. When the Jews came out of their homes they were put in trucks. The Jews who were mostly women and children and a few men who didnt have time to hide, were locked in the trucks and taken on the other side of the train tracks. The action took two days. The Polish and Belarussian policemen took equal part as the Nazis in this annihilation. They all lied to the Jews, making them think they were going to work. Moshe Taitz and Forman the Tailor who lived in the yard of Sezkov, made a huge hole near the Mayak, not knowing that this would be their own grave, as well as the grave of their brothers who were all killed and buried there.
Days passed until the Jews in town realized what happened. They kept asking, "Why?" Finally, Moshe Shimon secretly went to that area and dug a hole, and found the bodies and brought their clothing so that all the Jews who doubted the fate of their loved ones would realize the great tragedy that had happened. Amongst the people who were killed in this action were Faba Gurevich, Zundel Kraintz, Yehuda and Yakov Landau, Baruch Vaviyer, Eliau Zagermister, Mordechai Epstien, Aharon Lampart, Zalman Kasdan, and many refugees who came to town from Vilejka and Minsk. They found my brother Nathan hiding in the yard. He fought with the Nazis but they forcefully took him on the truck. At the same point, his wife Rivka, nee Miliokovsky, was in a hospital pretending to be Christian, bringing a boy to the world. But the father never laid eyes on him. His brit mila took place in our home, and it was the only brit mila during the entire time of the Germans in Vilejka. After this action only a few survived and from some families there was not one remnant.
At that point, the bread baking for the Jews in David Mordechais bakery was stopped. They no longer wanted to give flour for the Jews bread. The mayor said it was a waste of manpower to supply them with flour during wartime. So now the Jewish population only numbered 100 souls they could get bread from the municipal bakery. Instead of the 300 grams from before the action, they now received only 200 grams. Still they would give the bread in the Jewish bakery, so the Judenrat members would go to the bakery to receive the bread for the Jews.
Life became very difficult. Most of the Jewish homes were empty now. The Christians broke into the homes, took the windowsills, the floors, everything. They looked for hiding places where the dead Jews might have hid some belongings. In a few homes some Christians from the villages moved in. One day, when they looked for Jewish laborers, the SS found Moshe Shimon who had a long beard, so they took him to the central market and cut his beard. From then on he wore a scarf on his face, and until his dying day he didnt take it off. On another day a few Germans came to the bakery and looked for workers. Since these Germans were not known in town they didnt receive any workers. So the next day, the limping policeman Yashinsky came with orders from the Gvitz Commissar, took my father Baruch Norman with other Jews who were responsible for supplying Jewish workers, like Asher Floman and David Mordechai Norman, and brought them to the market, where they received 50 lashes each for not sending workers.
The days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur came, and in the house of Moshe Shimon we set up a synagogue. Three times a day the Jewish men would come there. All the males would say kaddish. We knew exactly where each and every Jew was killed. During the days of torment, we prayed in the synagogue of Lubavich, the only synagogue that still stood. The mitnagidim was burned by the SS and the big synagogue, already in the days of the Soviets was used for workers, and the Germans turned it into a stable. Mister Malishkevich stood before the ark and conducted the service. He would watch the synagogue as if it was the sparkle in his eye. How can anyone describe our prayer? The walls of the synagogue never heard such pleas and such spiritual heightening.
When Sukhot came, we built a Sukha in the yard of Moshe Shimon and we sat and ate in the sukha through the entire holiday. Rev Shmuel the shohet would encourage our spirits, saying Torah passages and prophesying the quick annihilation of the haters of Israel.
During that time the news from the front was very sad. There was a big world map that was hanging (somewhere in town?) and the little flags pinned to it would keep moving every day. They kept moving east as the Germans were moving closer to Moscow, and we kept waiting for a miracle, but there was no miracle. The Christians didnt care. For them it made no difference. Some of the Christians would bring us from time to time uncensored information that in some areas the Germans were not so victorious, and that the winters cold started giving them trouble. We would breathe a sigh of relief and wait for a miracle when we heard that news.
During regular times, before winter came, we would prepare a large supply of wood for the fireplaces, which we would buy in the market from the Christians. That year there was no wood for sale and no one was preparing. We were just happy for every day that passed without tragedies or killings. But that winter was very cold. We had already burned all the fences and there were no windows or doors left anymore since the Christians had already taken them all. So we had a very hard time finding wood to warm the home, or for cooking. And we could only do it during late nighttime, in the dark. Since the food was very minimal and the cold was unbearable, people started dying. Yakov Norman became sick and died and passed away at the end of the month Zhvat. On the same night, Tsipa Kopilovich passed away. We were busy for two days, trying to dig a grave, since the ground was totally frozen and we were so weak and starving. These two were blessed to be buried in a Jewish grave with the remnants of the Vilejka Jews taking them down their last road. How we envied them that they were able to die naturally, in their beds, amongst their dear ones. The wife of Yakov Norman, Marisha, passed away a few days later.
Ever since the time I was in Kurenets I kept in touch with some young people who were getting ready to leave town and go to the forest to join the partisans. This was a very difficult decision. How could I leave my parents, especially knowing that if the young people left their work to go the forests, the older ones would suffer the Germans revenge? My parents also talked of going to the forest but they kept delaying it day after day on account of the cold weather. Meanwhile the Christians who before worked for us became our bitter enemies now. They felt that our possessions belonged to them and they could hardly wait for our annihilation.
I somehow met Nachum Alperovich from Kurenets, who used to work in printing as I had done before, and we decided to join and prepare for the escaping to the forest. We decided to meet in Kurenets with a few others and to make some decisions. To go to Kurenets as a sole Jew wearing a Jewish star was very dangerous. Just a few days before, two young Jewish men from Kurenets were killed by Sherganovicz, a Belarussian policeman who was an extreme anti-Semite, even though they were on their way to work for the Germans. But I knew I had no choice. Somehow I succeeded in getting safely to Kurenets. Here I met with some Jews, amongst them Nachum Alperovich, Nyomka Shulman, Haya Katzovitz from Dolhinov, Zalman Gurevich, and Bertha Dimmenstein from the village Kalafi [ed:also there were Itzhak Einbender, and Motik and Eli Alperovich].
In this meeting we decided to organize resistance and to try to have more members. We would collect food and clothes and hide them in a secret place, and when spring comes to leave for the forest. At this point we didnt believe we could survive winter in the forest. The group had about 30 people from Kurenets and on one of the roofs of a house in Kurenets there was a storage area that was used to store clothes and food supplies. At this point we only dreamed of getting weapons, but how would we do it? Still it made us feel much better. We were not alone anymore. We now belonged to some sort of group where if something happened to us the others, someone would pay for our deaths. We would not go as lambs to the slaughter. I started working in a printing house for the Germans, from early in the morning until the evening.
Since the meeting in Kurenets I took it upon myself to steal printing letters to be used for pamphlets. The decision was made that Nahum Alperovich, who used to work in a printing press, would use these letters to make pamphlets for the underground. So each day I was able to take a letter from the printing house in the Gvitz Commissar. I would cover it with cloth and leave it outside and after I finished the work I would take it near the house of Noah Dinestein who also worked with the Kurenets resistance. There I would leave them in a designated place and quickly go home. And Noah Dinestein would transfer those letters to Kurenets, and Nachum and the others would print pamphlets. They would print hundreds of copies and distribute it to the Christian population, especially during market days. Mostly the pamphlets were about the lies of the Germans. They told of battles where the Germans had lost and they called the Christian population to go to the forest and join the partisans. The pamphlets were signed by Russkiy Partisans. Through the entire winter there were many pamphlets printed. At one point, all the printing press was taken from Kurenets to the forest.
The Third Action
Just before Purim during Tanit Esther, all the Jews fasted. At night we read from Megilat Esther in the house of Moshe Shimon. We had soulful prayers and we blessed each other with happy Purim, and may we see the fall of the new annihilator. At two in the morning we heard knocks on the doors and windows. I turned on the oil lamp and opened the door. The S.DE people ran in and yelled in Russian, "Odyo vi yatz" (?) meaning "Dress up." I asked them, "Where are you taking us?"
A soldier answered, "We are taking you to the ghetto in Krasnya" but we thought he said Krasne.
Meanwhile, the local Belarussian police came and without saying anything started beating us and hurrying us off to work. Outside there were trucks covered with canvas (?). Everyone was taken half-dressed and we couldnt find a way to escape. In the truck I found Moshe Shimon and his wife, David Mordechai and Muleh, Zundel Kraintz and his wife, Henia Kopelovich. We were all brought to the infamous prison in Vilejka. In the yard there was a storage building, and here we met with people who were brought before us, amongst them Barshai Floman. The Nazis put a table and by the table sat a German with cards and he identified each one of us according to his working place. Then he divided us according to two groups, one to the left and one to the right.
In the group that was sent to the right there were all the people who had a profession. The second group to the left was just laborers. Shlomo Hayim Norman who was sick and lying on a gurney (?) was taken out and then they started taking five people at a time from the group on the left. Barshai said when he took the gurney outside, he saw a pile of dead bodies in the yard. When he came near that pile, the soldiers started shooting at them. Barshai fell on the pile and he knew that he was wounded in his neck and in his back, but he lay there, pretending to be dead. When he felt that no one was paying attention and the soldiers went inside to get another group, he jumped on top of the barbed wire and escaped to Kurenets all bleeding and wounded.
Muleh Norman and I, who were younger than everyone there, were transferred to another room. I guess they decided we were professionals since Muleh was a baker and I was a printer. Here we met with Muleh Weissman and Oldmelshkovich. Shmukleh also came at one point, but his mother was transferred to the other group. As we slowly realized that all the professionals were separated, and now they decided to keep them alive. Through the entire day we were locked in the room. On 3/3/42, at 11 at night they took us to the big room. They put us on one side of the room. On the other side there were women who were not yet killed, among them my sister-in-law Rivka nee Miliokovsky, with her baby, who was born the day my brother died. She begged me to take her out of there, but there was nothing to do. Oscar Keller who was 13 escaped and came near us, but he was severely beaten and returned to his spot. He was the only boy amongst all the women. Hayya Shatz was also there. Fira Kramnik, the daughter of Slava nee Greenhaus, and Yosef-Shimon Kramnik son of Hillel, was lying on the ground on a white sheet and her mother stood next to her. Fira became paralyzed. About 20 women were in that room. At one point we were taken out of that room, outside, and with German guards we were taken back home, and the next day we were taken back to work. When we returned home Muleh and I walked together. My head was very confused. I didnt really want to understand what was happening. Although I was returning home, who was I returning home to? My father and mother were separated from me early in the morning and from that point I didnt see them again. Most on my mind was what my father said as we sat in the truck. "Yosef, you must be strong and take care of yourself. Even when I go in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will not fear." In my ears I heard the echoes of the shots and the screams of the dying. The image of our sisters waiting to be killed in that room, I couldnt stop seeing that image. How brave and strong they were. Although their eyes were filled with pain and torture, they didnt cry and they didnt beg the Germans. Maybe they lost any ability to cry. Their eyes appeared as if they were from another world. I felt as if they transferred to me a silent scream, "Survive despite our killers and avenge our blood, our respect, our honor."
We pulled our legs in Vilejka. Today was Purim. Is there any holiday as happy as Purim in the Jewish tradition? But everywhere there was silence. Only our steps would echo in the silence. We approached Pilsodzky Street, the main artery of life in Vilejka, a street filled that used to be filled with Jewish residents. Now the houses were all empty and broken, appearing like open graves waiting for new victims. We entered our home. I only left it that morning and how different it appeared now. I felt a frost coming from every corner. It was very good that Muleh was with me. The German officer suggested we be together. For some reason he commented, "Its better for you to be together during wartime."
My father and mother, my sister and young brother, my sister-in-law Rivka with her baby in her arms, were all killed in this action. Shortly after we got there we heard a knock on the door. A German gendarme with a Polish policeman came for us. They said that they had to take us to the prison yard. They received an order to look for any Jews who were hiding and to bring them immediately to where the Jews would be annihilated. It could be they really just wanted to loot whatever could be found and they met us. We kept explaining that we had just returned from there and we were needed professionals. This taught us the lesson that we must live together. They finally let us go and we waited until morning hours.
Before we left we broke every bit of furniture and possessions so no one would find the place fit for living. In the morning everyone came to one home and we were counted together, the last of the Vilejkan Jews, 22 souls, amongst them four families. Hayya Gita with her husband and son, Malishkevich and his wife, and Muleh and I. We moved to live in a room at the Malishkevich house. Malishkevich would make soap and candles. Shmukleh became a glassman (glazier?). The brothers worked in their profession in the house of Lampart. I continued at the printing press. Twice a day we would pray and all of us would say kaddish since we all lost parents. Noah Norman (my uncle) and his wife Feyga Henia, their granddaughter and his sister-in-law Batia, were hiding during the third action in a cellar in their house. The house was divided into two. In the front part facing the street there was a Christian Soviet man, a rustanzik. When the police came looking for Jews, the Christian man said there were no Jews there, so the policemen left. The next morning when the family realized that everyone else was annihilated, they escaped to Kureents and eventually they moved to Ratzke. Muleh and I kept in touch with them and we used a Christian woman to send them messages and letters. Once in a while they would also send us clothing and food. For a long time they were at the house of a Christian in the village. Eventually they were forced to run to the forest and after we escaped to the forest we lost touch with them. There were two stories about how they found their deaths. One said that the Christian residents in the area killed them and another one that they were found by German dogs and killed.
The husband of Hayya Gita and her son used to work in the flour mill that once belonged to Dubin, and later on was confiscated by the Soviets. Now their situation was a little better than the other
Jews since they had plenty of bread. They also had good connections with some Christians in the area. They used to live with us. Hayya Gita would put a big kerchief that would cover her yellow Jewish star and would go through the town to her husbands place of work. For many months she was able to do it, but shortly after the third action she encountered a local policeman who recognized her and immediately took her to the Gestapo, claiming she walked the street without a yellow Jewish star. The family tried everything. She begged and they tried to bribe, but in July of 1942 she was killed.
As I wrote before, Shernagovicz who as a Belarussian policeman from a village near Kurenets was extremely cruel. Dozens of Jews from the area were killed by his own hand. As I mentioned the two Jewish young men who returned from their job in Vilejka that he killed for no reason. Manya Edelman Potropsk and her family found themselves in a similar situation during the Soviet times as our family. So they moved to Kurenets during the Soviet times. Her husband Yitzhak was killed by the bridge in the first action in Vilejka, so she stayed with her daughters in Kurenets. One day she saw the killer Shernagovicz coming towards her apartment. She had just enough time to hide her daughters in the attic but didnt have time to hide herself. The killer came inside the house, pulled out his gun, and shot her on the spot. The daughters made contact with some Christian family friends and moved to live with them. One day, the two girls were brought to us and here we took real good care of them. We saw them as our little sisters through the troubles and we decided amongst ourselves that when we go to the forest we would take them with us. One day when I returned from work I couldnt find them. I was told that another Christian family who had also known Hayya Gita took them in. I never heard of them again, all traces were lost since that day.
Every day I went to work in the printing house in the municipal building. I didnt receive any payment. Muleh had some contacts with Christians, so from time to time he sold some clothing that he brought from his house and was able to get some food in return. Many months earlier, my father hid some possessions and clothing in an oven that was hidden in the basement of David Mordechai. So now in the evening we would sometimes sneak into the house that was sitting empty and we would take some of the possessions and bring it to our apartment in the house of Malishkevich. And then we would sell them to the Christians for food supplies. One time Muleh remembered that the family hid in the ground of their house a large amount of soap from Shikht, so on Sunday when we didnt have to go to work and all the Christians went to church, we started digging in the ground and we found the box filled with soap. To our bad luck, a few young Christian men saw from the street that we took out the soap, so when we finally arrived behind the synagogue, two policemen that the young Christians had notified about what we had done ordered us to go with them to the police station. One policeman took me and the other took Muleh. On the way I begged the policeman, "Take the soap and let me go!" But he said, "No, you must go to the station."
All of a sudden I saw Muleh had disappeared. I came to the police knowing that this must be my last walk. When we arrived at the station I saw Muleh, and he pointed to his feet. The other policeman took his new boots and gave him his torn up old shoes. I kept asking the other policeman to let us go in exchange for the soap, finally the two policemen talked to each other and said, "Okay, go away but keep it quiet."
We thanked them but we knew that for this soap we knew we could have food for half a year.
I remember the day when I went for lunch and on Mitzkivitzha Street and Shernagovicz came across from me. Even the Christians knew how cruel he was and would escape when they saw him. He was pointing a gun at my heart and he asked, "What are you walking around here for, bloody Jew?"
I answered quietly, but with self-confidence, "I am going to the printing press of the S.De. And here is where I live. I just had lunch and I must return to work. Here is my working ID."
Finally he let me go. He must have been afraid to kill someone who worked for the Gestapo.
The wife of Gdalia was watching everything. I could see her in her window, shaking, thinking that there would be another victim. Shatz, who came from Austria, somehow found his way to Kurenets during the Soviet times. Since he knew German fluently, he became now responsible for all the workers from Kurenets. Since there were hardly any Jews left in Vilejka, 50 Jews from Kurenets were brought into town to work. At first during the day they would work in Vilejka and then return to Kurenets in the evening, but after the third action when there were no more Jews left, the group from Kurenets became bigger: there were 200 people and they were put in a camp in the school for working youths from the Soviet days. It was located near the cemetery. Now they stayed in Vilejka the whole week and only on Saturday would they return to Kurenets. Through time they divided the group into two. One professional group, and the other, laborers.
Passover in 1942
In one room lived Old Malishkevitch and his wife, and in the second room the family of Chaia (Hayya?) Gita, and in the third Muleh Norman and I lived. Old Malishkevitch decided that we must celebrate Passover to spite the Jew-haters. We celebrated it according to the traditions, with matzos and wine, as it was celebrated all over the Diaspora.
He wanted to say, "Even if it will be the last Passover in our lives, we will not deny it. We will celebrate as all of Israel, as all of the Jewish people in every nation, and we will shout `Shfoch Hamat-ha [revenge on the nations who harmed the Jews]".
The old man did everything on his own. HE cleaned the house and the dishes and the oven of all chametz, and baked matzos not only for us but also for the Jews of Kurenets who lived in the camp. Instead of wine we had to use tea, and we had plenty of maror (bitter herbs). When Passover came we all prayed in the minyan and everyone said kaddish. Malishkevitch, with the other Vilejkans, were busy preparing the table for the seder.
To this day, I still dont know what happened to me that evening. I remember as soon as I entered the room I started crying. It was a deep cry of mourning for all my family. I couldnt take control of myself. In front of my eyes stood all my family members that had been alive until recently. And in front of the line stood my sister-in-law carrying her baby in her arms. It had been less than 30 days since they had been taken from this world, and the picture of her face was haunting me. The look in her eyes that wasnt from this world, when she stood in front of her killers it seemed as if her spirit was no longer in this ugly world and with the image I heard the sounds echoing in my ears, the passages of those who had given the death sentence. Even the silence was echoing in my ears, screaming to me their last testament, "You are spared to live alone as fate chose. The last remnant of your family, you must keep your life, escape to the forest and avenge our deaths."
Meanwhile the table was prepared and the old man came to me and begged me to take control of myself, and to re-enter the room and not to take away from the holiness of the holiday. I answered him. "How can I celebrate when I am the only one left from all of my family?" And once again I started crying.
He wouldnt let go. He demanded that I join the other people, and when I arrived there they begged me that I must not add to the sorrow, that I must stop crying. Come to think of it, this was the only time during the days of the Holocaust that I could not control my tears. The truth is I hadnt even reached the age of 18 at that point.
When I asked Malishkevitch what he planned to do if the Gestapo came to take us in the middle of the seder, he answered, "If that is what they demand, we will accept it."
At that moment my decision became very clear. I would not go as a lamb to the slaughter. They will never catch me alive. My head was filled with thoughts of revenge. I was able to convince Muleh that evening that we must be always prepared for the trouble that would come and if they would come to get us we would escape from the window straight to the bath house, where we had prepared a hideout.
In the seder ceremony, the son of Hayya Gita asked the four questions, and received the traditional answers: we were slaves, but on the fifth question, "Why do we deserve all that?" was left without an answer. I still do not know if anyone can answer this question until maybe the day when the Messiah comes.
Nachum (son of Pesia nee Castrol and Moshe Alperovich) Alperovich came from Kurenets everyday to work in the yard of the Gvitz Commissar. Together with him was Rivka Alperovich, also from Kurenets. I asked the manager of the printing press to take Nachum to work there since he was experienced and there was much more work to do. It seemed reasonable to the manager so he asked for Nachum and Rivka and they received permission. So from then on, every morning they would be brought by German guards to the printing press, and in the evening they would be be returned to the Kurenetser camp headed by Mr. Shatz. They slept now in the slaughterhouse. On Saturdays they would be returned with heavily armed German guards for the night.
I worked from morning til night, and sometimes I Slept in the printing house with the knowledge of the manager, Shteshifan, who gave me permission because there was so much to do that we couldnt finish during the day. I had a double reason for wanting to stay there: I stayed there alone and printed pamphlets for the underground, and when Nachum and Rivka left for Kurenets, they transferred them to Bertha Dimmenstein from Kalafi, who looked liked a Christian person and was in touch with the Russian Underground. She served as the liaison between the Jewish youths in Kurenets and the Russian partisan.
During the day, Nachum and I would discuss the wording of the pamphlet, and at night I would print and prepare packages of pamphlets, which they would hide in their belongings in the hallway. When they returned o their sleeping quarters they would take these with them. I already found out that there was a big effect of the pamphlets on the local population. I brought a few pamphlets to the Vilejkan Jews and they held on to it as a lucky charm.
Before Shavuhot, sometime in June of 1942, Nachum didnt return to work. As I later found out from Rivka, together with Benjamin Schulman and Itzhak Einbender, they left to join the partisans and to be trained in the Soviet Union. I notified the manager of the printing press that Nachum was killed on the way to work and that it had nothing to do with us. The total time that Nachum was with us was two months. I continued working and now I had to do a double job. Now Rivka took the pamphlets and transferred them to Bertha. Sometimes Bertha would come directly to the Gvitz Commissar building. She knew where she would find our clothes in the hallway and she would just go there, take out the pamphlets and leave showing not even a hint of fear of getting caught.
Shortly before Shavuhot, the world seemed to be awaken with the summer blossoms. Again I felt a strong desire to split, to go out in the world. Every day I talked to the other workers and begged them to escape, but they said without weapons it made no sense to do so. So I said to them, since the Gestapo people came almost every day to the place of work of the Vilejkans to order leather bags for them, for their wives, for their lovers, they came to the Jewish tanners to make a scabbard, that the tanners should trick them into going into the basement, kill them and take their clothes and weapons. Then we could escape to the forest. The tanners liked the idea very much, but when their wives found out about it, they were very fearful and asked us to delay the plans. Meanwhile, the Gvitz Commissar announced that the remnants of Jews who are still in Vilejka were very much needed and that no harm would come to them so long as they would work hard. And if any were to leave their workplace and to try to escape, everyone would pay and everyone would be killed. So again and again we would talk about escaping to the forest, but others would say that the time had not come yet.
During the summer of 1942 we were always prepared to escape. We slept in the attic of the tanners cowshed. Muleh, Weissman, a son and a daughter of the tanner brothers, and I would go every day using ladders to the attic that was filled with freshly cut hay that smelled very crisp and good. We had a hole in the roof that we could escape through in case of emergency. Also we had a hiding place in the bath house that we always kept clear.
Two days before Rosh Hashanah of 1942, in the afternoon Rivka Alperovich arrived from Kurenets. The look in her eyes made it clear that something terrible had happened. After a few minutes she told us that in the morning there was an action in the Kurenetser camp. About 150 people, mainly women and children, were taken from the camp to an isolated home near the cemetery, and the house with all the people in it were burned. Only two girls who hid underneath the planks of the floor and didnt go to work were saved. Immediately I said to myself, "Here comes our end." If they started annihilating the professionals in the Kurenets ghetto, they would soon come after us.
Immediately I left my work place and ran to the tanners who were working in the house of Lampart. I told them all that had happened and suggested that they keep watch since you never know when the Germans would come for you. After work I told the brothers very clearly, "I am leaving for the forest. You can decide what you want to do, I have done all that I could." The family of the tanners started arguing between the four brothers and the wives. After the difficulty of making a decision they decided to send two brothers to the manager Shatz of the Kurenets camp to find out if they had plans to escape to the forest. They returned as confused as before, as they found out that people there were also arguing and that no decision had been made. Everyone realized that we should leave for the forest, but they still had some reservations. After a sleepless night, the brothers decided that principally they would go to the forest, but before that they wanted to transfer some belongings to the Christian acquaintances so they could later exchange it for food. It took four days and the house was emptied.
Our few belongings we transferred to Bilzovitz, an acquaintance, and also some to Simon, a Christian man who returned from the US sometime before and now lived in an isolated home behind Makova. The tanners prepared holsters for us. We still didnt have guns, but at least we had holsters, and we thought that when needed we could pretend like we had guns. Later on, since these holsters looked like the ones soldiers carried, some of the Christians we would ask for food later might not realize that we didnt have guns and they would give us food out of fear. We made a plan to leave on November 12, 1942, at five in the evening from the house of the tanners that was near the synagogue of the Lubavitch Hasids in Vilejka. We decided that once we escaped we would again meet behind the train tracks near Mayyak. On the road between Kurenets and Porsa. The plan was that we would leave in groups of three, about fifteen minutes between each group, with small backpacks that we would carry in our hands. Just before we were ready to leave, Old Malishkevitch came to us and started complaining, "Where are you escaping to? Why are you separating yourselves from the rest? You should accept your fate like the rest of us?" No one answered him and he just left. Schmukler also left and went to a Christian acquaintance in Vilejka.
At exactly five in the evening we left the house with one prayer in our hearts, that we must succeed. We walked quietly since it was already past our curfew, and we quietly walked by the fences. Finally we arrived at the train tracks. We lay down there, looking to see if there were guards. When we saw a moment when there were no guards, we quickly ran across the train tracks in the designated place and met again in the forest near Mijiyak (Mayyak?). Yosef Bruch from Dolhinov didnt reach the place and we never found out what his fate was.
One of the tanner brothers, Zalman, only arrived at the village four days later. So now from all the Vilejkans who survived, the only people who were left in the camp were Golov the Miller (from Edelmans mill), his wife Chaia Gita and their son, and Old Malishkevich and his wife. From the Mayyak forest we continued on the road to Smogon near the village Biltzevitz. On the side of the village Makova, there was a forest where we hid the entire day. At night we walked about five kilometers until we arrived at the village Horodishtsza. Here there was the old manure business of Kaplan from Vilejka. Here, in the forest near the village, we stayed for six days. Late at night the tanners would go to the Christian acquaintances where they engaged some possessions for bread and potatoes. On the third morning we woke up covered with snow. We put a little campfire to get a little warmth and to boil something to eat.
When we went to the manure place, we found there Mrs. Kaplan and her children, and all of a sudden we heard from the direction of the forest, sounds of shooting that seemed to come closer and closer to us. Later on we found out that the partisans came to the village Makova and shot two brothers who were policemen who had collaborated with the Germans. Through the entire day we hid in the forest, fearing that our footsteps would be found in the snow. Finally that avening we met the first partisan in the area. Volinitz from Biltzevitz. He went for a partisan mission in Molodetzno. He gave us a rifle with short barrel (a carbine?) with five bullets and promised he would bring us to his partisan unit if we would be able to somehow get weapons. HE gave us some hints on what ways we should get weapons.
We waited and waited for him but he didnt return. Since we were supposed to go that evening to Biltzevitz, we didnt wait any longer. We knew we had to get some weapons and we thought that maybe in the village we could find some. We divided ourselves into two groups so that it would be easier to escape. In my group there was Muleh Norman, Muleh Weissman, David Majasky the Millman, Yechiel the Tanner with his wife Feygl and his sister Rivka. The other brothers and their families belonged to the second group and their mission was to find weapons in the village they went through. As Volinitz suggested during our first meeting, we should all meet at a Christian acquaintances house in the village. We walked that night very carefully when we passed through villages since the dogs would bark.
After two days, we arrived at midnight at Bilzevitz. We knocked on the door of a Christian farmer and he received us warmly. We sat by the fire and surprisingly gave us a very depressing bit of information: the other group of the tanners arrived there a day earlier and they decided to return to Vilejka. They said that they didnt want to die in the forest. The villager told us that he harnessed his horses and took them to Vilejka and the Germans received them very graciously and they said that we should do as they did. The brother Yechiel had much trouble deciding what to do. His legs were in great pain from the walk. He decided to take off his boots and decided to wait until the morning, and then he would make a final decision. When morning came, he decided to return to his brothers. He said that this week of walking around in the forest aimlessly was enough for him, so together with his wife and his sister they decided to return, and also Muleh Weissman said he would return. I had no doubts in my decision, and I begged them to not return but they were stubborn. When four in the morning came, I asked again, "Who is staying and who is leaving? I want to go somewhere else, to leave this place."
At this point, only three stayed: Muleh Norman, David Majasky the miller of Dubin, and I. We immediately decided to leave the area. We were only four kilometers from Vilejka and we had to go farther. The Christian man showed us the way to the puszcza Roskovsky where the partisan bases were located. We separated from the rest of the group and wished to meet them in more pleasant circumstances and left for the village Zymdori. We went around Kurenets and in an early morning hour we arrived at a forest of tall pine trees, about 20 km past Kurenets. The entire day the snow was falling. It was the month of November and the snow was thick all around us. We hid behind tree branches and we became very wet, but still we were happy to be free, thankful for the trees that hid us from the eyes of the killers.
Through the day we saw Germans traveling on the roads and we were surprised that they never noticed us. When it became dark we continued to the village Ozla, where there was a Christian who knew the miller. Here we sat by the fireplace, warming our frozen bones and drying our wet clothes. They gave us food and drinks and when morning came, we were transferred from that house to a bath house about five hundred meters away in an open field.
In the bathhouse it was freezing and we were dressed in summer clothes. We sat there the entire day so the neighbors wouldnt see us. To tell the truth we didnt completely trust this Christian man. Who could promise that he wouldnt tell anyone about us?
When evening came we again entered his home, warmed ourselves and ate something. We left for the village Rosky, as we were told we could find some partisans there. I had a map where I marked all the villages we would go through. We went through a few villages, and to our great luck we could walk there in the day since the partisans practically controlled the area.
When we arrived at the puszcza Roskovsky, we met with partisans riding horses. As we found out, those partisans were some Jews from Kurenets. We were extremely happy. Finally we met our brothers in trouble who we knew and who were lucky enough to be amongst the ranks of the regular partisans. Their job was to serve as scouts. Can anything be more brave than that?
When evning came we came to a very thick forest and here we met with hundreds of Jews, amongst them complete families that had arrived from Kurenets, Dolhinov, Myadel, and other surrounding areas. Each family found a little corner in the forest where they would light a fire and lie around it. Each group had about a few hundred meters between the other group. At that point, each of the groups started building a bunker to hide in during the winter. Exciting as it was to meet them, it still left us depressed. Those lonely campfires. Everyone seemed to be in a somber mood, and dirty from their toes to the top of their heads, dressed in rags and very hungry and thirsty. Still, their spirits somehow remained high, and everyone seemed ok despite the fact that they were covered by lice. I told Majaski, "we shouldnt be another separate group in the forest. We didnt escape to save our skin. Our aim is to fight the Nazis, to avenge the killings of our beloed. We must join the partisans, whatever it costs us."
Meanwhile we met with Rivka Alperovich from Kurenets who escaped from the camp to the forest, and we joined her campfire with her friends. The next day we found out that Dr. Shimshelevicz, who escaped alone from Lyuban, was here in the forest and also two old people from Vilejka, Rabonski and his wife. So we went to visit them. We found them lying under a tree with no clothes. They were very sick. We had a few clothes we had brought from Vilejka as well as some pieces of soap and bread we recerived from Christians along the way. They were in a horrible situation, but how could we help them? Still, it is hard to describe how happy they were to see us. IT was as if they had found their children in the forest. The old man said, " I am crying from happiness that I was blessed to see with my own eyes, remnants of young people from our town Vilejka who God will surely grant many years and energy to get revenge on the German killers. And they will be left as remnants to tell the next generation what the killers did to us."
Some months later we learned that both of them died in the forest from either freezing or from starvation. May God revenge their blood.
The next day we found out that the brigade Nordony Mastitl from the division Dyadia Vasia was in the forest and in one week they would transfer to another area. This was very bad news for us. We saw hope to be accepted by the partisans with all the duties and rights that it entailed, and yet we were not able to and they were going to leave the area. So quickly we came to them and begged, and they had a very clear answer for us, "If you dont have weapons you wont be accepted. Go to the front area and bring back weapons."
So we were left in the forest and became more accustomed to life there and its freezing weather, and the snow that was higher than a meter. At night I would go with the Kurenetsers to get food. On my back I would carry a thick log pretending like I was carrying a weapon. We would come to the village, knock on the windows and ask for food. When they refused we would threaten to burn their homes, so most of the time I was successful in getting some little bits of bread or potatotes. But this lifestyle was very unrewarding. We still wanted to organize and be accepted by the partisans.
Two days before Nordony Mastitl left the forest, Shimon Kaedan [Shimon Kaedan was latter killed, his sons now live in the US] from Krivicz, Sonia Fistonovich from Vilejka, Shifra from Dolhinov [now lives in New Haven], another woman, Muleh Norman, and I. All together we were seven people. The rest of the people were with families and didnt want to join us. Together we went to the old Russian border, hoping that tehre we could join some partisans and be equal among equals.
We walked at night, taking only isolated side roads. Once in a while we would encounter partisan units that were going for sabotage missions. Every time we asked them to let us join, and they said, "No weaponswe cannot take you." We were at one point stuck in the village Bolshvik near Plashensitz and Hoisk. We could not safely continue. Coincidentally at the same time there was the commissar from Dyadia Vasia, Ivan Matvivitz Timczok, a very personable Christian man. We approached him and told him all that had happened to us. We emphasized that we escaped the camps not just to save our skin, but mainly to fight the Nazis and to avenge the spilled blood of our families, since most of us were the sole remnants of big families. I also told him that I worked for the Germans in a printing house and I prepared many pamphlets for the underground that were very effective in the area.
He was very impressed by what we said and this dear man sent us to the third brigade of Dyadia Vasia, which was organized shortly before by the name of Kotovsky Atriad. We arrived to the base in a very thick area of the forest that was difficult to reach. On three sides it was surrounded by impassable swamps that a man could easily drown in, and near the camp there was a spring but at this point it was frozen. The partisans would break the ice and stand half-naked washing themselves. The pathways were very narrow and the trees were all very tall pine trees, and very close to one anohter. Whenever the wind blew, snow would fall from the tree branches and land directly in our shirts. There were two bunkers in the forest. Half of them were deep in the ground and they were covered for camouflage with tree branches, but at this point you couldnt even recognize anything since everything was covered by snow. Each bunker was 20 meters long and 5 meters wide. And in each one, 40 people lived. The head of this brigade was Barkov, who was Jewish, and the head of the division was Yaltzov. Most people were soldiers of the Soviet Red Army who had escaped becoming POWs. They put us in a row and asked us questions. The second in command of the head of the base couldnt understand why we served the Germans. He started cursing us, saying that it was clear to him that we deserved a bullet in our head and he said he felt bad that he didnt have permission to do so. I tried to explain that I had used my jobs for the Germans for the benefit of the underground by printing pamphlets for the Underground. I tried to say that this was just as important as taking part in missions for the partisans, and finally he agreed to accept us.
I dont know why he did it. Just because were young and eager to do something? Or maybe because Timczok sent us. We were sent to the bunkers, the women were sent to the kitchen, and finally we became partisan soldiers.
Already that night I was appointed to guard the bunker. There was another partisan who stood outside with a rifle. My job was to wake up the others if we saw anyone approaching. While I was guarding the camp, I also had to take care of the fire, keep adding wood, so that the fire would not subside. Since I was inexperienced, I put too much wood in the oven. The pipes, which were made of metal became all red and the socks and other wet clothes that were put on those pipes to dry started burning. The heat in the bunker became unbearable and the partisans started choking. The partisans woke up, started choking, and were unable to breathe. This misfortune almost cost me my life, but in the end they decided to forgive me.
The next morning we received rifles, and when I saw my rifle I kissed it. We were taken to a ceremony where we made an oath to be loyal to the partisans. We repeated the oath: To fight and Die for the Nation. This oath was with me since the first day of the first action, to get revenge on the enemy even if I had to pay for it with my life.
At noon Zaharov took me to a secret guard station at the edge of the forest. I was supposed to watch this path, and if needed to warn the partisans by shooting my rifle. I stayed there alone even though I didnt receive clear instructions of what to do.
After half an hour, the guard who I replaced came toward me. When he got within 30 meters I ordered him to stop. When he repeated the correct password, I asked him what he was doing there. He said that the head guard sent him to replace me for a short time, so I would have time to eat. Since I didnt know the rules that at least two people must come, one of them being an officer to approve the rotation of the guard. When I came to the bunker to eat, Zaharov started yelling at me, "How could you let a partisan replace you without an officers approval? Maybe hes a spy! You must immediately run back there!"
This was all staged. I was told that such a mistake could be punished by a death sentence. The rest of the unit told me I was very lucky that Zaharov didnt take it any farther. There was a case with one of the brothers from Dolhinov, who was caught asleep while guarding and his death sentence was immediately carried out.
Most of the missions that were done were not in the nearby area. For missions that only required breaking telephone lines or demolishing bridges, we would go two or three days away from there. On our first mission we went during the night on a cart harnessed to a horse. During the day we would hide at the edge of a village, at the farm of a local villager. After three nights we arrived at a village near Plashensitz, where we found out that a certain collaborator was hiding weapons. When we arrived there we took a lot of his belongings, including alcohol, meat, and beans, and returned to the base.
Later missions were to attack German trucks. We would put some lumber and rocks in the middle of the road, and when the driver would slow down, we would ambush them. This we did on the road between Minsk and Borisov. For the telephone lines we would put a meter from the ground some explosives on the telephone poles and then we would light the fuse and run. The poles would break as if they had been sawn off. We were in that area for two weeks, and we received an order to organize a unit of 15 and go to a new camp 20 kilometers from the village Stavicki, in a thick forest surrounded b marshes. We left early in the morning. It was thirty degrees below zero Celsius. We were still sweating from walking so fast. Anytime we stopped for rest, our clothing would be covered by frost. Sometime before evening came, we arrived to a village where we were able to get a horse and a buggy, as well as axes and saws. We also took some doors and windows and two pigs, and a few metal buckets for cooking.
The next morning we arrived at an island surrounded by dangerous marshes, and all through the day we built a big bunker. It was very difficult since the lumber was very big and heavy. It was extremely cold and the snow was deep, but during that night we were able to sleep in the bunker, which had an oven in it that was made from the metal buckets we had taken, and it even ha d a small smokestack.
Muleh Norman became sick and couldnt walk anymore. The next morning we built another bunker near Stavicki, and this was to be used as a base for emergency time. From there we started going on a few sabotage missions. After a week, Timczok came for a visit. He remembered well my story about working in a printing house and he decided to use me for a new printing house that Moscow ordered them to establish in the HQ of Dyadia Vasia. So now he took me to the HQ for work on the printing house. I told him that I preferred to stay here and keep taking part in combat missions, but to that he responded that with one pamphlet you can kill more Germans than one hundred bullets. Those pamphlets would be able to reach places that no bullets would ever reach.
There was a special bunker with a big container, filled with letters. There was also a primitive, wooden printing press. Here I met with Dov Katzovitz from Globoki. He had just started working in this place, but still didnt finish the first pamhlet. He was very happy to see me. We worked an entire day until we prepared the first pamphlet in Russian. During the three days I was there I was able to publish two different pamphlets. On the fourth day, Timczok came back and took me to the center of the partisan movement in the area of Borisov. This group was named Kirov and the location was somewhere behind the Berezina River. It was near the headquarters of Dyadia Vasia. Here I stayed to sleep and Timczok left, at a distance of three or four kilometers away. In the center was Zokovitz from Kurenets. He was sent here from Moscow with instructions on how to do certain missions. Zokovitz was the secretary of the Communist Party in Kurenets.
The center was on dry land in the middle of the marshes. During the days of peace, no one ever set foot there. As soon as I entered the area I fell asleep. All of a sudden I was awakened by someone calling my name. I couldnt understand who could know me here. And then I saw Batia Kaplan! She used to study in Vilejka and when she came near she explained that she was now in the brigade of Kirov as a partisan. As soon as she heard there was a guy from Vilejka by the name of Yosef, she knew it was me so she walked several kilometers that night to see me and to find out what happened in Vilejka, and to speak some Yiddish with me.
The next morning I went with Timczok to the basse. When I arrived there I saw a small winter town. Amongst the huge, tall trees stood houses. The earth was covered with snow, and outdoors stood horses and cows tied to trees. On the tree branches pieces of meat were hanging and there were haystacks.. One of the wooden homes became a hospital where we put wounded people and those who had typhus. One doctor escaped from being a German POW and now he took care of the sick. He was able to operate there. One patient he had to amputate a leg without any anesthesia. There was also one house designated for sewing and mending clothes. The wife of Ruven from Postov, a Jewish partisan by the name Galia Vant, worked there. In the kitchen of the brigade they would prepare food for 150 partisans. There was also a bakery and a cobblery. This was the central artery of the partisan movement. When I arrived with Timczok to Zokowitz, he said, "You must stay here and establish here a central printing press for the movement."
Here I also met the first commissar of the Atriad by the name of Kirov. The newspaper man Potohov. I knew him very well from Vilejka where he worked as a newspaperman during the time of the Soviets. He used to work in the same printing house that I worked, so now he was very happy to see me. Zokovitz then made me work for Potohov, under his supervision. This was shortly after the Zlazniak Brigade conquered the town of Gomel, where they found a complete and fully equipped printing house, and they brought it to the forest. Se we used a lot of the supplies that they had brought to establish a central printing house. The commissar Potohov was appointed head of the newspaper and I was head of the printing house. We went about 80 kilometers in the forest to Zlazniak, but in the middle of the way we found phone lines and we followed them to Zlazniak. But at one point we were stopped by an armed partisan who would not give use permission to continue. Finally he was able to contact headquarters in Zlazniak and they let us pass. We continued the next ten kilometers on a sleigh to get to the brigade headquarters at Zlazniak. Once again we found a little town with homes made of wood: little bathhouses were taken from communities in the area and rebuilt here as homes. Also they were able to transfer electricity and telephone service to the area, and here we found a printing press with one machine to print and all the needed supplies. We received two containers filled with letters and other needed supplies, and I received some instructions on how I should do it without all the necessary printing materials.
So here Potohov and I stayed for a few days to get some instructions. When we entered the kitchen of the headquarters, Potohov was pleasantly surprised. The woman who was serving the food at the headquarters of the bridge was none other than his wife, whose whereabouts he had not known since the war started.
After the training I returned to the base of Kirov. In the bunker of Potohov we temporarily set up a printing house and after two days the first pamphlet was ready. Coincidentally, in the first night when I was there, they brought to my bunker a Christian man with his hands teied behind his back., I had to watch him. His crime was the Germans appointed him head of the village Babranza, and he was a collaborator. I had no information about him, but the next day when he was taken to be investigated, he escaped. They chased him chased him and started shooting. One of the partisans took his boots off and chased him through the snow, hitting him with the butt of his rifle and killing him when he caught him.
Other than pamphlets we wrote a small newspaper 1/8th the size of a regular newspaper, and there we would write the latest news from the front and descriptions of actions done by the partisans from the Kirov brigade, and announcements to the local population. Some more memorable announcements I remember were the atriad under the officer P. attacked a German grenizon in Babranza and killed 1000 Nazis. At the end we would say, "And you, tell us what you did for your contry."
Eventually they buiiilt a special bunker for the printing house, complete with radio communications, and every day we would print a new pamphlet to be distributed by the partisans going into towns for missions. We also received an accumulator from a a car so we could work at nice. We started printing weekly by the name of "Krasnya Zamnniya" (The Red Flag). As I became more acquainted with the people I started looking to socialize with some Jewish people. About 5km from our base there was a bunker where Jewish partisans, the brothers Schreiber lived with theifr female cousin. There they established a warehouse for leather goods. There was planty of raw materials to be found, and the partisans needed leather jackets and boots. So the brothers Schreiber and their cosin lived separately from the headquarters, but it seemed they lacked nothing. Once when I came to speak Yiddish with them, to visit them on a Friday night, I was shocked to see them baking a white chala brad for Shabbat. This visit awakened in me many memories. For a few days my head was spinning. Once again came to my eyes my home during Shabbat and the holidays and I had no one around me to express my feelings of the great loss I experienced.
During the big blockade, before the war ended, the Schreiber familys enterprise miraculously survived when they hid for a few days in the marshy areas. That blockade took place in April 1943. The German attacked us in three prongs. About 20 divisions, or about 200,000 soldiers with tanks and artillery and also planes started destroying the partisan bases. They started from the marshes Bialoviatch in White Russia and from there to Lithuania and Latvia. They kept tightening the noose and pushed all the partisans to the area of the river Berezina intending to destroy them in that area. This blockade was caused because the partisans started controlling all the roads in White Russia, despite the fact that the area was under German control.
Our brigade contained four atriads. One was Kirov, second Pronza, third Provida, and fourth Artiliriyaski. In each of them there were four "classes" of about 60 people. Altogether there were about 1000 people in the atriad.
The forest and the marshes where the partisans settled contained hundreds of kilometers from the Berezina all the way to Borisov. When the enemy plans started flying very low to try to find us we immediately received orders to build bunkers and dig trenches to protect us from bombing. We were ordered to not make any more fires, not even for cooking. I was assigned to a unit of scouts. So I put all the printing materials in the ground near the base. I took all my personal materials to the front near the Berezina River. Our job was to prevent the Germans from crossing the river from East to West. We hid in trees in the marsh across from the river and we could see the Germans in an open field but they couldnt see us. To tell the truth, the partisans were not really prepared for such an attack. We didnt have sufficient amounts of trenches dug and we didnt have real fortifications. Only in the last minute before the attack we started digging and making bunkers, and setting communications lines. During the first shelling many, many fighters were killed. We received a two word order from Stalin which was "Dont Retreat!!" This order became one with us, flowing through our minds and hearts as if it were our own blood. We asked for more weapons from Moscow and they ordered us to prepare what they called an envelope. This meant to make a fire in the shape of an envelope where the planes from Moscow would land. Unfortunately the Germans also saw these signs and they started attacking the area. It took two weeks for the plane from Moscow to arrive in a small airfield where they distributed some ammunition and took with them a few wounded, some women including the wife Zokovitz and returned to Moscow. The enemy planes bombed us every day. In the scout unit I belonged to, many were killed. The Germans came closer to us from the West of the river and started firing. Other than the planes that would bomb us, a few times a day, there was heavy artillery that was used directly from the forest. They shot blindly at the forest constantly.
We lay between the bushes in the marshes for two weeks, and every German that came near the river in order to cross we would shoot on the spot. We killed many of them. Finally we couldnt stop them. They kept tightening the noose around us and we were shelled from the eastern side constantly as well. So we received an order to retreat to the base that was 5km east of the eastern riverbank. The entire brigade of Kirov was now gathered at the base and here they decided that each battalion would be on their own. The order was that each group must find a way of escape on their own, but must try to maintain communication with the brigade. So we left for the marshes. In the daytime we would hide in the bushes and at night we would walk the dry paths we could find. The Germans, meanwhile, succeeded in crossing the Berezina. They found our base, destroyed it, and kept coming near us. On each path they took they cut 50 m from the sides of the path, leaving many kilometers now open. They also built bunkers and trenches. So now clearly we couldnt take the paths because we would get caught. They had very detailed maps of the area and they knew where all the paths were. In a few days they were able to cross the whole forest, so we didnt have control of the forest except for some isolated pockets.
Originally we took all the cows and horses from the base, but since we couldnt retreat in such a condition we just left them all in the marshes. Before we left we slaughtered one cow and each one took enough parts to cook and eat for two days. I walked with a friend and at one point we stopped to cook the meat. We saw that about three meters from us there was a woman who sat and stared at us. S he asked if the meat was tasty so I invited her to eat. I found out that she was a Jewish woman from Minsk and she had a daughter that was 5 years old that she had left with some Christian villagers nearby. She belonged to the Atriad Zar Rudino (For the Nation) and that it had been days since she had eaten anything. After a few days she told me simply, "You saved my life." Later I found out that the officer of our brigade, a Jew by the name of Patia Grindir took her to his unit and she survived and now lives in Minsk. In the forest we went to the direction of Gomel.
When the Germans kept bombing the area and the headquarters ordered that we must try to cross the German lines since they were tightening the noose and they could destroy us with their planes, during the past ten nights, some brigades tried to break out of the ring but to no avail. Dozens of partisans were killed, amongst them, the head of the area, Zoskovitch from Kurenets, who was killed about 15 km from the Berezina. A few units who knew the area very well were finally successful in crossing the enemy lines. One day, our unit was surprised by fire from the Germans, who discovered us. A very brave Jewish lieutenant who was the head of the Artillery atriad by the name of Kritzbesky was killed 30 m away from me. He was a great guy and we became like brothers. His second in command was also a Jewish lieutenant by the name of Patia Grindir.
So now we looked for a place to hide. We crawled through the open fields where the Germans had cut all the trees. We hid in the marshes, and for two weeks we stayed there. All the food we had taken from the base, a supply to last for three days, was long gone. Now we were starving and ate the grass that was next to where we stood. We would try to make some soup out of it that had no taste or smell. While we were in the marshes we were somehow able to hear a communiqué about the fight of the Warsaw ghetto, about how they stood for one month against the Germans. We saw them as heroes fighting against the enemy and I felt that this would be my fate and it would teach the world that our blood would not be spilled without retribution, the killers would pay some price. At that point I was absolutely sure I would not survive the blockade, but something started boiling in my blood. Here what we wished for deeply in our hearts, it happened. All of us must show the world that we are capable and this miserable life became worth living if only for the reason that the world must know tht the Jews are not cowards and if they were given a chance and were given weapons, they would fight the enemy.
One night we met with the brigade of Didya Kola and Zlaznick. They took us and together we all decided to try to break through the enemy lines, no matter what, although most of the unit had been scattered since the Germans attacked, and had surrounded us with fortified bunkers, preventing us from remaining one strong, brigade.
At night I went out with two other scouts to check out the Germans lines of defense. We discovered the bunkers were about 50m from one another, and two guards watched each bunker. We knew if they saw us they would destroy us, so I let the commandos know the information and we decided that we had no choice but to cross the German lines. The next night we started going through the dry paths. I who knew the area went first. I felt as if someone was showing me the way, as if I was not only pointing the road, but having the road pointed out to me by some other power. We arrived near the bunkers and instantaneously threw grenades in the front bunkers and then they fired in all directions. Somehow we succeeded, and it seemed as if the Germans thought they were attacked by a large force: they started lighting the sky with rockets but we were already past the front. It was as if our small unit had been taken on the wings of the wind.
After we crossed the front we went through the forest and the marshes. We went at night through dry paths but we didnt meet any Germans or Partisans. Although the blockade took about two months to end, we found out that the Soviets started an attack in the Smolensk front and that the Germans were obliged to discontinue their blockade and had to take their forces to Smolensk. This was sometime around the end of May 1943. We regrouped at a new base 15 kilometers away from the old base and we re-commenced our military operations. We destroyed trains and tracks, bridges, etc. We kept busy all through the summer, gathering supplies and kept getting orders to keep doing even more than we had done.
As the winter of 1943-1944 came, we built a winter base on a dry island that was about 200 m in diameter. From three sides there were marshes. We built small homes, hideouts, zimlankas from lumber and we covered them with earth and plants. Inside we built ovens from metal and a pipe that would come out for the smoke. The commissar of this brigade of Kirov by the name of Pasikov, who was both the secretary of the party and the commissar, asked me to prepare a printing house in one of the bunkers. There were three partisans who helped me, one was the editor of the newspaper. I would print and offer any other assistance. So now we took out our equipment from the place we hid it in the ground and started printing a weekly. Every day we would also print the news from the front since they put a radio in our bunker where we could hear all the news from Moscow. This radio used an electric generator. We also heard news of the partisans of our brigade. The paper and the ink we received from Minsk and Borisov. What we wrote would be dispensed by the units that left for missions in the early morning house. Every night I would sit there by the simple oil lamp and print the news. At one point, the soldiers took a German truck so we took out the battery and the engine and somehow were able to use it for lights. So from then on every day we would print 800 pamphlets to be distributed among the villagers who wanted to know news from the front, and also among the partisans.
I still went to visit the brothers Schreiber from Dolhinov to keep in touch with the Jews in the area. At one time I received news from Sonia Pistonovich who was in one of the villages in the area where the partisans had settled. All through the summer I also went on missions to destroy trains. We would go as a group of five people in the area of Minsk and Borisov. Sometimes we would have to wait for days until our turn would come. Many people wanted to take part in these missions. In one occasion we waited three days since so many other people to take part in these missions. In another occasion when we arrived to take care of the mission we were surprised to find two other units came to take part in the mission.
The Second Blockade
At the end of the winter of 1944, a second blockade started. At this time the Russians started making offensives on all fronts and the Germans realized that all the roads in the northeastern front were controlled by partisans and during nights they were not able to use either the roads or the trains since there were so many partisans that destroyed much of the ammunition and killed many Germans. So they decided to clear the area of the partisans. They planned the same type of blockade as the first one that we could never forget. They sent a strong and large offensive, aiming to blockade us in one small area. Again we fought for every inch of dirt. Our brigade transferred to the eastern front. We buttressed ourselves in bunkers in the forest near the River Horba, and didnt let the Germans continue.
The Germans kept bombing us from planes and tanks and artillery. We fought them with Molotov cocktails, grenades, and Patia Grindir also received about 50 shells but he had to trade rifles for them. When all ammunition was used we retreated. I became sick with appendicitis and for three days I couldnt move. I just lay in the bunker and when again they started to shell the area I asked the commander to go to the doctor. The second in command at that point became sick with typhus and the doctor took him to a secret hospital in the middle of the marshes. The commandant let me know that the doctor, just a few minutes before had left for that hospital so I must run to catch him. With tremendous pain I walked to the base. I could hardly carry my weapon. I walked for the entire day. I couldnt find the doctor, as he went to other areas to see the sick and wounded. Here I met some partisans from my unit. I slept there and decoded to return to my unit, but all of a sudden we received news that the Germans had surrounded my troop, and all that survived escaped to another area.
So now there were only five people from my unit and the Germans were coming nearer. We escaped to the east of the Berezina and we found a few units of partisans who were trying to cross the river. Since there was no bridge they took two pieces of wood the width of the river and tried to cross to the other side. A few of the partisans fell into the river and drowned. The enemy planes discovered the crossing and started shooting at us. We would retreat to a different area and as soon as they disappeared we regrouped and tried to cross again. We waited for our turn, but there were so many that we had to eventually cross by swimming the next morning. The water was very cold and deep, but we still succeeded in crossing,, but when we arrived at the other side we saw some Germans approaching us. We escaped to the forest and we went through the Didya Kola base but it was empty. In one bunker we found some food.
The Germans crossed the river and divided it into small areas where they cut the trees and buttressed bunkers and started shelling all the partisan units from every direction. Many of the shells fell near us and I dont know how we survived. Thousands of partisans were killed. During the night they would shell and bomb. At one time I lay down under the trees and when the forest was shelled, the tree I lay under broke in two as if an axe had split it. But somehow I was not hurt. For two weeks we walked from place to place. We had no rest since the Germans patrolled the area. Someone found a dead horse and they started cooking it, but while cooking the Germans shelled us. They must have seen the smoke. So we left the meat that was cooking and escaped to a small dry island that was only a few meters in diameter. We cooked there in little containers some plants that we found. At this point I didnt eat anything for four days, but still I could not eat more than a few spoons of this awful concoction. At one point the Germans found our hideout and yelled to us to put our hands up. There were three Christian partisans and they put their hands up. I with my two Jewish friends took our grenades and threw them at the Germans who were 20 m from us. We took their rifles and ran because we knew what our fate would be if we were caught alive.
My friend next to me Oppenheim from Minsk fell dead. I was just slightly wounded from that attack. Yuzik from Hoisk also survived. The Germans were able to catch many partisans and take them as POWs but we were not discovered. One time I went with Yuzik in the forest and we met with another unit of partisans looking for a way to escape. So we arrived in a big group to an island that had very thick woods. We decided to wait here and hope the Germans didnt discover us. During the noon hour the Germans saw us while they were chasing another unit that succeeded in escaping. So they started shooting at us.
Each one f us ran to another area. Yuzik and another person and I ran deep into the marsh looking for a hideout. We hid near the German bunkers in the water that came up to our necks, hiding among the plants. I said to Yuzik, "It seems our end us coming Lets shoot them til we have on bullet each, and with our last bullet we will shoot ourselves so they cant take us alive."
Meanwhile it was getting dark, and the Germans kept coming towards us. They looked under a bush and caught some who were hiding. We threw our last grenade at them and somehow we were able to still shoot. When it got very dark we were able to get out of the water. We passed about 50 m away from the bunkers, hoping they would not look there since it was so close. During the day we hid about three hundred meters from there. For three days we were there and then we transferred to another area. We met with other partisans who gave us some food. I had horrible stomach pain. Somehow we made it to another island where we decided to wait for our fate. A German unit came to the area but didnt notice us. We were there for two nights, but we knew the Germans werent far since we could hear dogs barking, so we had to be close to their bunkers. On the morning of the third day we heard dogs barking, but they seemed to be from farther. In the sky we saw planes which we thought were Soviet planes, so perhaps the Germans were retreating. We decided to stay and to check the area. The next day we couldnt hear dogs barking and we only saw Soviet planes. We were near a marshy lake by the name Falicki.
When we left the area through dry paths we met some partisan units and some solitary partisans looking for their units. We started all walking together and we met with the Red Army, which was chasing the Germans. I would like to point out that our brigade stayed in its place outside of the blockade, and it was the only one that didnt suffer since they settled outside of the marsh area a long distance from the Berezina. Since I went to the doctor, my fate was to go through all the horrible experiences of the blockade. We returned to Klafniczi in the area where our brigade settled. Once again a civil authority was established in the area. I organized a printing house and became its manager. Pesikov, the party secretary, appointed the mayor of the town and established some civil and national committees. Normal life started returning to the area. Now all these institutions were managed by partisans that survived from the brigade by the name of Kirov. I was sent to Minsk and received two medals, one was the highest of Soviet medals, and other was a victory medal.