The Onset of the Partisan Units in the Forest of Naroch
By Alexander (Shura) Bogen, originally Katzenbogen
Shura Bogen, Leader of “Nekama” a Jewish partisan unit
From With Proud Bearing, 1939-1945: Chapters in the
History of Jewish Fighting in the Naroch Forests
Edited by Moshe Kalcheim
Published by the Organization of Partisans, Underground Fighters, and Rebels in Israel
Tel Aviv, 1991
Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan
* Alexander Bogen A Fighters’ Meal, 1943, pencil on paper
I was born in Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania, in 1916. I studied there in the gymnasium and when I graduated, I was accepted to the art academy near the University of Vilna, named for Stefan Batory. Both of my parents were physicians. Father came from a secular family and Mother was the daughter of Rabbi Tuvia Lobitzki, the rabbi of the town Volkovysk, then in Poland. The atmosphere at home was very liberal, and other was involved with leftist organizations and connected to Yiddish culture.
Talia Levitan by Lake Naruch, 2005
the biggest lake in the western part of Belarus, was surrounded by a most
exquisite never-ending forest, with very thick vegetation and dangerous swamps.
During the Second World War, between the years 1942 and 1944, a partisan
movement was established in this area. This movement contained hundreds of
thousands of fighters. Polokovnik Fyodor Grigorovich Markov was the main
partisan leader. He was not a professional in the military. Before the war, he
was a teacher in the shtetl Svencian, near Vilna. He belonged to an
illegal Communist cell. He became a member of this cell as suggested by his
Jewish wife, Ester Desiatnik, nicknamed Ethel.
In the year 1939, the Red Army invaded Belarus and Markov was appointed as the head of the civilian government in Svencian, as well as member of the Soviet Supreme in Moscow. He was a good-looking man--blonde, tall, very clever and educated, cultured and interested in the arts--and many times I would be a guest at his home to discuss modern movements in art and literature. In the summer of 1941, as Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Markov escaped with other Soviet officials from Vileyka to the East. Vileyka, at that time, contained the main Soviet headquarters in the region. As the Germans invaded, the entire ruling party went east; but when Markov arrived in Moscow, he was asked to return to Belarus and establish an underground partisan resistance movement.
When he first arrived in Belarus, he hid with local comrades. Soon he established a small partisan unit; and during the night of the 19th of May 1942, they staged a blockade and killed the head of the Gestapo in the Svencian area, Kerl, and also the Gvidt-Komisar, Bek, as they were traveling from Lintup to Svencian. This mission made a huge impression on the local population, and they saw it as a sign that they should join the partisan movement in the Naroch Forest. Soon Markov established the partisan brigade named for Voroshilov and headed this partisan unit until the end of 1943. Soon this brigade started to attract Jewish youth from shtetls near the forest; and despite all the difficulties they had, they found a way to escape from the towns and join the Soviet partisans. The conditions of life for the Jewish partisans in the forest were very difficult. A typical Jewish partisan had to prove himself to the partisan headquarters. They gave these Jews missions that were almost impossible to fulfill in order to test them. They would be sent, for instance, to get weapons without supplying them with any weapons with which to defend themselves. They were also sent to gather information and on other missions that were very dangerous.
Eventually, there was a suggestion to establish a fighting independent Jewish otriad, and many Jewish partisans who were spread in different partisan otriads in the Naroch Forest were very eager to join such an otriad. They knew that if they were members of an independent Jewish group, their condition would greatly improve: They would have an easier time getting weapons; and they would feel safer because, when they were minorities in the otriads, they always had to watch their backs, since many of the non-Jewish partisans were very prejudiced and backstabbing. They would treat the Jews with prejudice and put them down, and [the Jews] did not receive equal rights. The desire to belong to a unit that had a unique national identity, similar to what other nationalities had, was deeply imprinted in the hearts of most Jewish partisans.
Leaders of the partisans in the Naroch Forest; Colonel Markov is on the top right.
The secretary of the Communist Party in the Vileyka region – Meir Polodany in the middle ( drawing by Bogen in the forest, 1943) Comrade Kalimov is on the top left. Below from right; Andrai Volinitz, P.M. Dunilochin, Nicolai Motukevitz
The head of the brigade, Colonel Markov, was in support of this idea, both because he wanted to enlarge the operative missions and because he wanted to establish contact between the Communist underground and the Jews of the Vilna Ghetto, as well as cells of Jews who hid in Vilna outside of the ghetto. So, according to the decision of Markov, a Jewish fighting division Nekama/Miest, or "Revenge," was established. All the hopes for enlarging this Jewish division were based on the belief that they could bring young people from the ghettos in the surrounding shtetls to this division, especially those from the Vilna Ghetto area, where there was an FPO underground. FPO stands for Fareinikat Partisaner Organizatsia.
Another resistance movement in the Vilna Ghetto was headed by Yehiel Scheinbaum. The FPO manifesto was to get weapons and start a revolt inside the ghetto as soon as there was an attempt at liquidation. At that point, they envisioned that the members would break the fences of the ghetto and pull with them the masses while fighting and would be able to reach the forest and join the partisans there. On the other hand, Scheinbaum thought they should join the resistance in the forest and stage a more effective revolt against the enemy in conjunction with the Russian partisans.
Bogen , A Jewish Partisan in the Voroshilov Brigade, 1943
The first contact between the FPO and the resistance in the Naroch Forest was established as a result of the resistance unit of the Svencian Ghetto. The young people in this unit took charge and contacted Markov, asking that he help bring Jews from the ghetto and accept them as fighting members of his partisan unit. Among them, I would like to mention fighters like Shaike Gertman, Moshe Shutan, Israel Wolfson, Froike (Ephraim) Miadjolski, Yitzhak Rudnitski, Motke Feigl, and Shlomo Jechilchik.
At the beginning of April 1943, the Svencian ghetto was liquidated. A small number of the residents were transferred to the Vilna Ghetto. A few others were told that they were going to be sent by train to Kovno. When the train arrived at Vilna, they separated the cars and the people who were told that they were going to Kovno were taken to Ponar, where they were all killed. [According to Svencian survivor Bronia Porus Chosid, in one such action some Jews fled when the doors of the boxcars were opened and made it to the forest, where they joined partisan units. Among them were Chaya Porus, later Chaya Palevsky, and her brother. Ed.]
Long before the liquidation of the Svencian ghetto, a small contingent of young Jews organized themselves and escaped to the forest; but after suffering a period of starvation and being unable to get in contact with Soviet partisans, the brothers Yochai and Aviham hid with a Tatar man until they were able to make contact with the Soviets. The rest of the people left the forest and found different ways to return to the Vilna Ghetto, aiming to bring out groups of young Jews from the Vilna Ghetto to the forest. When they realized that the FPO was very determined to revolt inside the ghetto, they decided to take charge and started influencing young people, especially young people who came from shtetls near Svencian and were now in the Vilna Ghetto, to return with them to the forest.
Jewish Partisans, 1943
During the preparation to escape to the forest, two very tragic incidents occurred. Chaym Hirsh Levin was caught at the entrance to the ghetto, and when they searched him they found that he was hiding a gun. He immediately pointed the gun at the policemen, who demanded that they give him the gun. Chaym Hirsh refused to give the gun, shooting the Jewish policeman and killing him. Immediately, the head of the Judenrat of the ghetto - Gens - arrived and killed Levin. At the same time, the German police caught, at the entrance of the ghetto, Tevka Bilak who, when he entered, had a gun in his hand. He was taken to the headquarters of the Gestapo, where he was tortured and murdered. After these occurrences, the Jewish police started following the young men of Svencian. They arrested Yitzhak Rudnitski, Froike Miadjolski, Moshe Shutan, and Israel Wolfson. They were badly beaten; but after some time, Gens agreed to release them. Froike Miadjolski was able to escape from the policemen and ran maniacally to our apartment and told us what had occurred. We hid him behind the furnace until they stopped looking for us. When he left our apartment, two policemen entered our apartment and found Leibke Gurevich, Jacov Levin, and me consulting a map and looking for a road to get to the Naroch Forest. They immediately arrested my wife and me and took us to the police station. We were sure they would torture us during the investigation. The head of the investigation was Oster. We told them that we were partisans and trying to get to the forest. He acted in a polite manner, and there was no torture. At the end of our conversation he released us. On the 15th of July, Wittenberg, who the Gestapo found out as the head of the FPO, received an ultimatum from the Germans. The Jews received an ultimatum saying that either they give up Wittenberg or the Germans would liquidate the ghetto. Wittenberg did not wait for their decision; he gave himself up and was taken to the Gestapo, and [then] taken to Lukiszki Prison. Before the interrogation, he committed suicide. [Wittenberg was the first commander of the United Partisan Organization in Vilna in 1942. A Communist who forged ties with the Zionists, he was betrayed by a fellow Communist. Published accounts of when and how Wittenberg surrendered and how he died are inconsistent. Ed]
On the 24th of July, the first group of FPO members left in order to reach the Naroch Forest. The scout of the group was Shaike Gertman from Svencian. The group was headed by Josef Glazman. When they reached the town Loriskes, they encountered a German blockade that started shooting at them; and from the 34 members of the group, only 13 survived, escaped, and arrived at the Naroch Forest. This tragic event was the reason they cancelled all other plans in favor of going to the forest. The connection between the FPO and the Svencian youth was severed. On the 29th of July, another group left the ghetto to go to the Naroch Forest. This group was headed by Moshe Shutan. He was only seventeen years old but was very brave, fearless, and calculating. Some people who joined this group were not members of the FPO. I was also added to this group. We left the ghetto and arrived in the Naroch Forest, where we joined the Jewish division Nekama [Vengeance]. At that point, the head of Nekama was a Jew from Lithuania by the name of Botijenas. Botijenas ( Zerach Rogovski)
He replaced the first Jewish head of the division, Bomke Bojarski. Botijenas was sent to the area from Moscow; he parachuted into the forest near the partisan headquarters. The head of the headquarters was Josef Glazman. The division was still in its infancy, and they were busy with building zimlankas for sleeping and cooking; and they built outdoor bathrooms and took care to make sure that there were some minimal sanitary conditions. They also built a bathhouse.
Partisan in Battle, 1943
Charcoal on paper
The division's main need at that point was to enlarge the number of young Jews in their ranks. As soon as I came, I went to Colonel Markov and suggested that I bring some young people from the Vilna Ghetto. This took place in August 1943. His living space was in concealment among the thick pine trees near a marsh. In front of the entrance was an armed guard. I said my name and asked to talk to Polokovnik Markov. After fifteen minutes of waiting they let me in. Markov was involved in a conversation with the commander of the Chapaev Division, Sidiakin, who was nicknamed Yasonoja Morija (meaning "the Light-colored Sea"). Sidiakin had been involved in previous times with sending Jewish partisans from Svencian to Ghetto Vilna to bring them [young people from the Vilna Ghetto] to the forest. Now Markov asked me what reason I had for wishing to return to Vilna, 200 kilometers away from this forest, in order to [try to] influence the members of the FPO to come here. He explained that until now, all his requests to the FPO leaders to join him in the forest had been refused. For example, he said that the group from Svencian that he sent there were received with absolute apathy by the FPO. They were determined, he said, to fight in the ghetto against the Nazi enemy, which had the best and most modern lethal weapons. Markov emphasized that this fight was absolutely useless and it would be much more effective for them to bring their weapons and fight in the forest. He said that he knew that the FPO members had weapons; and, not only that; he also wanted them to bring physicians from the ghetto to the resistance movement. When he talked, he expressed great disappointment and was almost mocking them. I explained to him that amongst the ghetto members of the Resistance there was ideological debate about whether to go to the forest or fight in the ghetto. Once again, Markov asked with what they would fight in the ghetto, a few guns and grenades against German tanks? They had put very little thought into it, and there was nothing strategic about their planning. I said to him that there was an element he did not understand. The fighters were deeply attached to their families, and it was very hard for them to abandon them to sure death. He answered that every soldier in the Red Army had a family, but the mission to destroy the enemy had to come first. No army could function if they considered first and foremost the fate of the population. When I said that my aim was to convince the FPO to transfer their members to the Naroch Forest, he smiled and said, "Well, your suggestion is interesting and very brave, so you may as well try. As you know, we need weapons, doctors, and contact with the Resistance, so please get in direct touch with the comrade of the Lithuanian Brigade, Jurgis, and he will give you more instruction." He immediately gave me a pistol, two brigades, and a map showing me where to go.
Leaving Markov's headquarters, I encountered a group of partisans. They were very concerned when they found out the details - they could not understand why I would want to return to the Nazi Hell. Judka Salkind said to me, "You have to be insane to go with a healthy head to a sick bed. You are walking into a certain death." Two partisans - Gilman and Moshe Judka Rudnitski - said to me, "If you really plan to go to the Vilna Ghetto, please take us with you." Moshe explained that he had left both his wife and mother in the ghetto and would like to bring them here. I was slightly embarrassed now - I had planned to go alone, dressed as a Christian father. I thought that, with my blonde mustache, I would pass easily. Reluctantly, I agreed to take them with me.
Jurgis, the head of the Lithuanian Brigade, received me very warmly. He was about 40 years old, of average height. His body was rotund, as were his nose and eyes. His most distinctive feature was his large and hairy mustache, typical of the farmers of the area. His real name was Israel Ziman. He was a high school teacher, and was known as being very intellectual. In his hideout, I found armed troops that had just returned from a mission and were exhausted. Their boots were caked in a thick layer of mud. One of them said that it was impossible to reach Vilna - the suburbs were filled with armed Nazis, and this is why their first unit had returned without even entering the town. The expression on Jurgis' face kept changing. Although he was very relieved that everyone had returned safely, he was disappointed that the mission had not succeeded. This was the second unit that had returned without being able to enter Vilna.
He read Markov's letter, regarding me intently, and said, "Yes, my comrade. You decided to take part in a very important mission. We truly want to make contact with the Jewish resistance outside of the ghetto, but I must warn you, you should be very careful and take care of yourself." He gave me a letter written in code and said to me, "You must find Sonia (Szejne) Madejsker and Anton Korablikov in Vilna, and give them this letter." We said our good-byes, hoping to see each other yet again. Like this, in the company of my two friends, I left.
We walked during the nights, and during daytime we hid in the forest or the fields. Once in a while, we would find empty isolated houses at the edges of the villages where we could stay. When we needed food, we would go to the farmers and ask. If they refused to give us food, we obtained it from them by force. Usually, when they saw our weapons, they pretended to be friendly. On many occasions, when they saw us, their eyes would be filled with fear; but once we had talked for a while, they would smile and encourage us, saying, "Eat, eat, you bandits!" Usually, we put someone to guard and two of us would be inside. While we were there, we never let any members of the family leave the house. After we said our friendly good-byes, I would say with emphasis, "Clearly, I am not suspicious of you; but just in case, I must warn you that if you attempt to say anything to the Germans or the police, other partisans will come to your house and burn you."
One night, we came near the village Lilovitski and through the fields. We entered the first house on the road that we found. The room was lit with small oil lamps. When we knocked, nobody answered; there was total silence. When we entered, we found the farmer lying on top of the furnace pretending to be sick. As soon as we pointed our guns at him, he seemed to recover. Per my order, he harnessed his horse to the carriage, and, after a few minutes, we left. All of a sudden we heard a sound, as if someone was coming near us. From afar we could hear the whistle of a bullet piercing the darkness. We left Moshe Judka on the carriage to watch the farmer, and Gilman and I went to look at what had occurred. With drawn guns, we walked through the total darkness, one step after another. We held to each other in order not to get lost. We found nothing. When we returned, we found that Moshe Judka had fallen asleep on the carriage and the farmer had disappeared. Gilman became very nervous; he practically had a panic attack. He was sure that the farmer was going to send police from the nearest camp. We pulled Moshe, who was still half-asleep, out of the carriage and onto the road. We walked through fields until dawn rose and were shocked to discover that we were in an open space near a village, a few steps from a German camp!
We immediately ran to a nearby forest and hid there until evening came. We continued walking and were getting near Vilna when we found out from the villagers that the Vilna Ghetto was burning and they were sending some Polish people to work in Germany. My friends decided to return to the partisan base. I tried to convince them that we must continue with our mission, paying any price, also pointing out to them that to return was no less dangerous than to keep going. I was very disappointed, as we had already passed a very difficult and dangerous road and now I had to forge on by myself. After I had walked on by myself for a few minutes, I saw that Gilman and Moshe Judka were walking behind me. Their partisan pride and conscience had caused them to overcome their fear.
Early in the morning of the
6th or 7th of September, we arrived at the Vilna suburb Gore [possibly Nowy
Gorod - Ed] and hid among the bushes.
Not far from us we could see villagers and policemen. All of a sudden, a
shepherd came by. We had no choice, and I started running to the nearest home.
A Polish man - Rodovich - received me. A Christian man, he looked at me and
smiled, saying, "For a Polish partisan I will do anything." His wife
gave me some clean clothes. Rodovich worked for the Germans in the
sanitary unit, and he would take out trash from the ghetto. He knew all the
resistance members. His home was small and dilapidated and had no flooring, and
the roof was broken. In his attic, he had some rags and rotten wood planks, as
well as roosters and pigeons who walked there proudly. In this luxurious
condition, Rodovich put me up. I could not stand in this narrow space. I could
only lie there. I asked Rodovich to take a note to the ghetto. He was very
surprised by the request, saying, "Why would a Polish fighter want to get
to the ghetto." I explained that I was Jewish, but he did not believe me.
"It must be that we Polish need contact with the Jews,” he said. He took
the note and promised to give it to someone from the FPO in the ghetto. He
returned in the morning, giving me a wide and happy smile, and disappeared
again. Deep down, I trusted this simple man; but after a few hours of waiting I
became worried and something started eating at me.
Even if he were honest, I wondered if he would be successful or find an appropriate person. I considered that now that the ghetto was liquidated, it was perhaps easier to establish contact with the Resistance. I decided that if he betrayed me and brought the Germans, I would shoot them and leave the last bullet for myself. I considered jumping out and hiding with my friends outside; but I knew that there were some people standing outside and if they noticed me, they would surely betray us and then our chance to fulfill the mission would be lost. The hope that we could bring hundreds of fighters from the ghetto would not be achieved.
I realized that when in the forest, I had always felt myself to be a soldier and in control; but here I felt imprisoned and as if I was in a cell. All of a sudden, someone knocked at the door. The housewife opened the door carefully. A neighbor had come to borrow some tools. As they were talking, he whispered in her ear, "Today the policemen are checking all the homes." In panic, I sat up and hit my head badly and was in great pain. Once in a while, I would reach for my gun as if it was the thing dearest to my heart. Finally, at noon, Rodovich returned. He said to me, "Get off your throne. Everything is okay. I gave your note to Sonia Madejsker."
After a few minutes, he harnessed his horse to the carriage and I got out. We went on the road. I found Gilman and Rudnitski and signaled to them. On Rossa Street, we encountered a German sitting at the window with a big smile on his face. With one hand he was shaving, and with the other he waved at us. I waved back at him, laughing inside thinking of this paradoxical sight. When we reached Zawalna Street, we passed by the ghetto. The Gestapo members were all standing in a line on the sidewalk; this line contained older German people who were lucky enough to be appointed for non-combative duty. Gilman and Rudnitski walked next to the carriage on the sidewalk. Gilman put his hand in his pocket, and all of a sudden a gun fell out of his pocket. He looked around with great fear and immediately took the gun and put it back in his pocket. The Gestapo people did not pay any attention. We continued through Poholenka Street, and there I saw a familiar face. This was my professor from the art academy - Miknas. He was at a distance of only about two meters from me. I wanted to say something to him, but I was too fearful. I ducked quickly so as to avoid being seen. We passed near the Kailis Camp, where Jews worked in the factory making fur coats. Rudnitski stopped, saying that we would shortly find ourselves among the Jews.
We now found ourselves in an entirely different world. People were very busy making fur coats for the German soldiers who suffered greatly from the winter conditions in the never-ending Russian land. When the Jews met with us, they were filled with hope. There was a live contact with the Resistance in the forest, and a dream that they had was coming to fruition before their eyes. We ate and washed ourselves and felt reborn. [However,] the FPO leaders were very concerned. This event took place a few days after the Estonian action, and the situation seemed hopeless. Everyone became aware that soon the entire ghetto would be liquidated. I looked from the window and saw the Jewish policemen; to me, it was very clear that the Germans would cheat them. In a short time, all that would be left of them were their blue uniforms. After eating something we hid in the malina - what they called the blind room. The entrance to this room was through the roof, and it was used primarily as a hideout for children.
Leaders of the Vilna ghetto FPO
Yitzhak Wittenberg, Aba Kovner , Josef Glazman bottom; Ilya
( Yechiel) Scheinbaum, Abraham Kavinik, Nisan Reznik
In the Vilna Ghetto
The next day, we went on a truck with other Jewish laborers who returned to the ghetto. Near the gate stood Nikka Dreizin. He was a Jewish policeman who collaborated with the Nazis. He was a secular Jew who was renowned as very cruel. After he saw me, he went to the head of the Jewish police - Dessler - and told him that we had arrived at the ghetto from the forest. This was our first encounter with Jewish police. Immediately, they arrested us. Two policemen took us in the direction of Shona Street. All of a sudden, one of them whispered, "Don't be fearful of us. We work for the FPO and are taking you to the headquarters." A few of my friends recognized me, and immediately the rumors that partisans had arrived from the forest spread.
I walked first. The alleys were very narrow, and the homes had a dilapidated yellow tint to them. Near the wall walked people with grave fallen faces and eyes filled with fear. They looked lost. They were the eyes of people who did not sleep at night. They appeared starved. This was the second week of suffering from a complete lack of food in the ghetto. It seemed as if everyone was looking for something. One older woman walked back and forth crying, "Where are my children, give me my children back!" She was overweight, and her rolls shook like paper sacks in the wind. I saw an elderly couple who stood next to the wall. They held each others' hands tightly. The old woman leaned her head against a pamphlet announcing a play that was to take place in the ghetto theater. Not far from her stood a little girl with a doll in her hand. She looked at the surroundings with her big black eyes. Someone said that her parents had been taken to the Estonian camp and she had been left all alone. I stood next to her - a strong soldier with a weapon in my hand - but could not help her. I was powerless, and there was no pain I could feel greater than that.
The Jewish policemen went back and forth as if they were in control. Only yesterday they had pulled Jews out of their homes and looked for Jews in their hideouts. They took four thousand people out of the ghetto, two thousand women and children and two thousand men. Today they walked around not looking at anyone, with eyes downcast. It was clear that nobody knew what tomorrow would bring. This entire ghetto was filled with confused and lost people. In the air there was a smell of filthy clothes and rotten bedding, and the walls were covered with grime and mold. The smell of this reached every corner, every rock, every door; and it seemed as if one could almost hear a mephistophelian laugh. One realized how simple-minded Dante's Inferno was, and how limited Michelangelo's Hell had been by comparison. This calamitous sight that my eyes saw was part of a system of annihilation that was very sophisticated and was performed by truly meticulous geniuses.
It was the creation of Ubergrupenfuhrer Kitel. Kitel's profession before the war had been an actor's. His face greatly resembled Rudolf Valentino's. He loved music and was a sentimental man. During the war, his main occupation had been the "Jewish issue." This particular system of mass murder was his brainchild, and for this reason he had been appointed to liquidate the Riga Ghetto; and when this had been accomplished, he had come to the Vilna Ghetto to start its destruction. He seemed to truly enjoy his job. An art aficionado, he had funded a saxophone for the ghetto band. I now saw Kitel going quickly to his office. Later we found out that he was planning the expulsion of another thousand Jews to Estonia.
At the Headquarters of the FPO
We entered a small room in the library of Straszuna Number 6. The library was used as the headquarters of the FPO. When we arrived here, Gilman and Rudnitski fell asleep. Our troubles and our lack of sleep had made them very exhausted. I watched the ghetto inhabitants through a small window and quickly recorded what I saw - the shadow of a child, an elderly man and woman. I recorded these on small notes and put them in my pocket, feeling as if doing this would freeze my pain. I said to myself that maybe one day these papers would reach the remote enlightened world and would tell something of the hell endured here. Once in a while I walked outside of the dark room; and in the aisles between the rows of books, I would meet members of the Resistance, talking to them and trying to comprehend their situation and point of view. Sonia Madejsker
Sonia Madejsker had been a Communist even before the war. I
knew her very well, having studied in high school with Sofia Markovana Gurevich
together with her sister. Two of her sisters had perished in the Minsk Ghetto.
Sonia was very beautiful - with blonde hair, blue eyes, and a strong and
beautiful body. In Vilna and its environs she was known as an Aryan and was
used as a contact between the FPO headquarters and the Communist underground in
town. She had a soft expression on her face, but in her eyes there was
determination and one knew that she would sacrifice everything for the cause;
she was an ardent activist.
Another resistance leader - Aba Kovner - I also knew before the war. I remembered that in 1938, I was a first-year student in the Vilna Academy of Art. I had already been attending for several years and did not have much contact with him, but I remember how different he had looked from all the other students. He was isolated in this Christian environment - only a few Jewish students were ever accepted to the Academy. Once in a while, I would go to the freshman studio to encourage him; but he could not tolerate this unfriendly environment and, after some time, left the Academy.
I also met Abraham Kavinik - he was a member of the Bund. I also knew him from the University of Vilna. He was thin and handicapped in one arm. He was a true intellectual. When evening came, Sonia Madejsker took me to Chyena Borovski. Chyena had been a Communist activist before the war and had now become one of the most active members of the FPO. Despite the fact that she tried to keep up a cool and collected image - an image she needed to have in order to be a member of the FPO - I could see that she was very excited. We drank some tea, and the atmosphere was pleasant and almost homey, as if we had forgotten the total annihilation and the fate awaiting thousands of people with death sentences
. After a short conversation, Sonia looked at her watch and said, "Alexander, we must go." It was dark; we went to the gate of the house on Rudnicka Street 6. This home took one to a street outside of the ghetto. We heard a quiet whistle. Sonia whistled similarly. The gate was opened mysteriously, and we snuck in through an opening, finding ourselves in Konarska Street.
In order not to be noticed, I held
Sonia in my arms and started singing quietly a foolish song. Someone walked
behind us. I looked at our surroundings and then got out onto the street. The
shadow disappeared. We relaxed a little and continued; but when we reached the
end of the street, the shadowy figure reappeared. We could see it was a tall
man wearing a black coat; on his head he wore a cap or something that a
Lithuanian policeman would wear. We started walking fast, crossing Tamanska
Street, and entered Subaciaus Street. Once again, the shadow appeared.
Sonia whispered that she had 1000 marks and that perhaps if we gave it to the
man, he would disappear. I myself felt that a bullet would be more convincing
than any piece of paper. I drew my gun out; Sonia caught my hand and, in a
quiet voice, said, "I recognize him. Don't shoot him. He is a Jew."
We learned that this guy had followed us in hopes that we would lead him to the forest. There were many like him in the ghetto - people who were following activists in hopes of saving themselves. We continued walking. Here and there we would see the residents or policemen; but everyone was in a hurry to get home, as the curfew hour was nearing fast. We found ourselves in a suburb of Vilna, behind the train station. Sonia opened an iron gate to a house in a small, dark alley. We entered the yard. The home was surrounded by a flower garden and lilacs. Sonia looked around and, finding the key, opened the door. We found ourselves in a dark room that was empty of people. At the corner stood two wooden beds, on which we sat. Once in a while, I looked out the window to make sure nobody was pursuing us. Every sound increased my anxiety. At first, the conversation was slow; we just exchanged words. Soon we were involved in a deep conversation - each of us wanted to learn of the other's world.
Sonia said that tomorrow there would be a meeting at the headquarters of the FPO. I asked her if there were some FPO members who would agree to leave the ghetto. "I know," I said, "that your basic concept is to fight in the ghetto until the end." Sonia explained that in the FPO manifesto it was written that they would go to the forest only once their mission in the ghetto was fulfilled, and they would then take with them as many Jews as they could. "We will find together a road to reach the forest, and once there we will continue the fight against the Nazi homicidal maniacs as a part of the general resistance." I said, "Is the answer to the question that you just gave the agreed course of action of most FPO members?"
Sonia answered that they had gone though times of worries and expectations, desperation and hope. People were very disappointed by the attempt that was made to resist. "We were not able to draw the mass community of Jews in the ghetto toward our course. We wanted to meet the Germans with weapons; but after the first shot, fired by Ilya Scheinbaum, the Germans blew up the building and everyone retreated to a house next to the headquarters. There was a mix-up, and the second battalion was caught by the Germans in a surprise attack. The members were taken outside of the ghetto; and they did not have a chance to reach Spitlana, where their weapons were hidden. Only a few escaped and arrived to where we hid in the yard of the headquarters on Straszuna Street 6."
I said, "What are you waiting for? You know these are the last days of the ghetto. The imminent annihilation of the ghetto will be complete. Do you really think that on that day you will stand with your little weapons against the Nazi Army and tanks? And that while fighting them you will be able to transport thousands of Jews outside of the ghetto? The ghetto is surrounded! Thousands of German, Estonian, Lithuanian, and Latvian soldiers are closing in on the ghetto. They will kill each and everyone who dares to step over the fence. Even if a few of you succeed in getting out, you will be murdered on the road." I could not resist and said, "I don't understand why you agreed to give Wittenberg over to the Gestapo."
Sonia answered that Wittenberg was in a very difficult situation. "The Resistance demanded that he should start active missions in and out of the ghetto, according to the FPO manifestation that advocated struggle during the day of liquidation and opposed the idea that there should be responsibility to the general resistance and not a specific ghetto group. This became hell; during this situation of mass panic and the fear of thousands of people who were desperate, we were lost. We could not reach an agreement about what constituted an appropriate way to behave. Could anyone truly find resolution for such a fateful situation? The moral pressure was unbearable. The head of the Judenrat asked whether it was better to sacrifice one person or thousands. Only history can answer; Hitler will be destroyed, the German army defeated. Its defeat is coming near; the murderers take revenge for their defeat on the Jews. We feel that salvation and resolution is very near; we can truly feel it, but we know that only a few among us will succeed in seeing the day of victory. Still, we have a strong urge to survive and to have a little bit of happiness." I said, "It seems ridiculous to sit quietly on this volcano and dream of happiness."
I told Sonia that I had a letter from Jurgis that was meant to be given to Anton Korablikov from the Communist Underground in town. I asked her if this Korablikov was the same guy that was part of the Polish Communist Underground of Pashvilski. Sonia said that this was true and he was the same one. The unit of Pashvilski had a more intellectual character and was not very good at operative missions. Also, the Polish population hated the Soviets, and their hate for Russia was so deeply rooted that they could never forgive the Soviets when they transferred Vilna in 1939 to the Lithuanians. The Pashvilski Unit was not able to root themselves into the mass Polish communities. So she said, "As soon as the Soviets established a Communist resistance, the Pashvilski group united with them."
While I was sitting across from Sonia looking at her beautiful blue eyes, blonde hair, and feminine young figure, I said to myself, "How many flowers like this will be annihilated in this gruesome field?" The night passed; and in the morning, someone knocked on the door. A young blonde man wearing a short leather jacket entered. This was Anton Korablikov. Sonia introduced me to him, and he took out of his jacket fresh buns, milk, and apples, and we ate. From the window, we could see an old woman coming near. It was the home-owner, Mrs. Janova. She entered and greeted us. Anton gave her a glass of milk and an apple. She had come to see whether there were any strangers here. She explained, "You know that the Germans are looking everywhere," so Anton explained that we were only his sister and brother-in-law who had just arrived from the village and the woman relaxed. He promised not to let any strangers enter. He continued, saying he totally understood that one must accept the instruction of the police and she could be sure that everyone here was of our people: good Polish people. The old woman said something and left the room. I took the letter from Jurgis out from under my shirt and gave it to Korablikov. He shook my hand warmly.
Some time later I found out that he was killed in a battle against the Germans.
Once again, we went out onto the
street. We walked through the streets of my hometown - the place where the days
of my youth had passed. Now everything appeared so different. When we arrived
at the ghetto gate, Nikka Dreizin, the traitor policeman, saw me. We quickly
entered the office of the arbeitsauftraggestll [probably an office with racks for work orders]. From
there, you could go directly to the ghetto. Before the fearful clerk understood
what was going on, we entered the headquarters of the FPO, where everyone
waited for us impatiently. They did not ask any questions but were happy to see
that we had returned safely. I was very surprised when the members of the
headquarters said that Dessler, the head of the Ghetto Police, was asking to
see me, and I wondered what he wanted of me. I could never understand the
nature of the contact that Dessler, the head of Jewish Police, had with the
Resistance. They explained that Dessler was a bit fearful of the FPO but
pretended to be their best friend. He tried very hard to manipulate them so
they would not start any armed revolt in the ghetto.
Before the war, Dessler had been among the golden youth of Vilna. Days and nights, he would spend partying and gambling. He was a tall overweight man, and only his meaty lips bore testimony to his cruel nature. His face was expressionless, and his chest protruded. At headquarters they told me I faced no danger in meeting him, so I agreed to go to his place. An old-time Communist - Abrasha Krizovski (his daughter got in touch with me- T.)- accompanied me.
He was the usual contact between the FPO and Dessler. When
we entered the office, we found Dessler to be in a good mood. Abrasha
introduced us, and I sat across from him [Dessler]. Even sitting across from us
in front of a wide table, his upper-body extended over the table. Dessler was
very curious about conditions in the forest and details of how and where people
lived. On his face he had a delighted expression and a happy smile. He said,
"I am a friend of the Resistance." This strange situation made me
very curious, and I answered peacefully all his questions and said, "I am
very happy to see in the commander a friend to the partisans." Every
question he asked, I answered, "Everything is wonderful with us. All is
healthy and safe, and the fresh air in our pine forest does wonders for
us." I noticed that my poetic answers were not sufficient for the head of
the police. All of a sudden he furrowed his black brows and said, "I am
very excited by your visit. Happily, I will have you as a guest at my home for
a good dinner with a good bottle of wine." I pretended to be very
sentimental about the warmth he exuded.
I answered, "Dear commander, I am afraid I am only a soldier and for another visit I must ask for permission from my superiors." Dessler seemed to become enraged. He looked with a darkened expression at the door and checked his watch impatiently.
All of a sudden the door opened, and a German man dressed in civilian clothes entered. "Who are these Jews?" He yelled loudly, looking intently at us. I understood that we had been tricked and it had been a provocation for us. I put my hand in my pocket and held on to my gun. Krizovski became pale, and Dessler immediately stood up behind the table. He held my arm and pushed both of us to the door, saying, "It's all right, sir. They are Jews from the ghetto." We quickly went outside to Straszuna 6, where the head of the FPO was located. (After the ghetto's final liquidation, Krizovski arrived to the forest of Naroch. When I asked him Dessler's intent in saving me from the Germans, he explained that Dessler always liked to play a double game. On the one hand, he wanted to prove to the Gestapo that he was able to catch any Jewish partisan who entered the ghetto. On the other hand, he wanted to convince the head of the FPO to trust him and [realize] that he would save a partisan Jew from the hands of the Gestapo.)
After this conversation, I never saw Dessler again. I was told that the FPO held a trial against him and he received a death sentence as a traitor but was never executed. When I was in the headquarters of the FPO, I asked the leader, Abba Kovner, to arrange a meeting for me with my artist friends who were in the ghetto. He took me to the attic where Rosa ( Rachel?) Sutzkever, who was one of the best-known artists of Vilna, lived. She had been a few years ahead of me at the Art Academy. Now we found her dressed in tattered clothes across from a canvas where she was painting a portrait. She said to me, "Look Alexander. I think that today I was able to put a smile on the face of my model." This seemed to bring great satisfaction to her. I wondered to myself what force compelled her to create art in such hellish conditions
The “Ubermensch” in the pose typical of the “Master Race”
Oil crayon on paper
After the Big Action of Four Days in which four thousand Jews were liquidated, Rosa was able to escape from the ghetto; and she asked her friend from the academy, Panske, who was a Volksdeutcher, to help her. Panske was a German agent who tried to get students from the Law Faculty in Vilna to join the Nazi underground. I would encounter him occasionally before the war. A student by the name of Anastasia Kort told me after the war how, when Panske saw his friend Sutzkever he received her very graciously and promised to help her. He asked her to come to his apartment the next morning. When she came through the door, she found two Nazi agents waiting for her. They imprisoned her and took her to the Lukiszki Prison and from there to Ponar to her death. The same fate befell another painter who Panske "helped," Hadasa Gurevich. The well-known singing teacher Jakob Gershteyn, in the Ghetto drawing of Rochel Sutzkever source: Shmerke Kaczerginski: Churbn Wilne, S. 81
These were the last days of the
Vilna Ghetto. The members of the FPO knew that the end of the ghetto was
coming, and all the resistance attempts had thus far failed. When they called
on the members of the ghetto to revolt, the population objected. At that point,
from the twenty thousand residents of the ghetto, only twelve thousand
Before I left the ghetto, I had a long conversation with Aba Kovner. He was most interested in knowing whether we could successfully transfer the members of the FPO the two hundred kilometers that separated the Vilna Ghetto from the forest - two hundred kilometers of unfriendly villagers who were collaborating with the Germans. After our long conversation, I read at a meeting the long letter of Markov; and this is what he wrote:
"By the name of the Headquarters of the Brigade of Voroshilov in the Naroch Forest, I, Colonel Markov, support the attempts of Alexander and all his people in trying to transport weapons and people to the Jewish Division Nekama. Alexander should instruct the different units about how to reach us. Also, I ask that Jewish doctors from the ghetto come and be appointed to different divisions of the brigade."
A Lane in the Vilna Ghetto, 1943
When I finished reading the
letter, I said, "Comrades, the ghetto is in its last stage of survival.
According to the Nazi plan, everyone will be killed and we will have no
opportunity for even a symbolic revolt. I bring the blessings of your comrades
fighting in the forest and share their desire to unite with you." Most of
the headquarters members received my speech very warmly. After an hour, there
was a meeting of all the heads of the units that planned to leave the ghetto,
among them Chaym Rabinovitch, Janiski, Jasha Raf, Gilman, and Rudnitski. I
showed them how to read a map, explaining what they should do if they
encountered the enemy, and how to use a compass, how to find their way using
the stars, [and instructed them in] when to open fire, how to get food on the
road, and many other things. Meanwhile, we prepared some copies of the map of
the area, which I had brought from the headquarters, and we discussed in detail
all the localities that they would come across on the way to the Naroch Forest.
After the meeting ended, only Abrasha Kavinik and I were left.
He showed me his very thin hands, saying, "Look at my hands, Alexander. Do they really need people like me in the forest?" He looked at me with a very stressful look. I was very anxious. I could not say a word. It was as if my throat would betray me. I said, "Don't be foolish. Go quickly and be ready to join us." An expression of hope filled his eyes, but this gentle and noble man did not arrive at the forest. Avraham Kvinik
A bitter fate awaited him on his route. When they reached the edge of the forest, he and his two friends, Jacov Kaplan and Asia Bik, ]encountered the Germans. They were not fearful; they shot them, he himself killing two Germans, and continued shooting until they ran out of all their ammunition. They were captured and tortured and were hung in front of thousands of Jews who stood by train cars that were just about to take them to the concentration camp in Estonia
When I returned to headquarters, I saw the mother of Moshe Judka Rudnitski. She was crying. "My son, don't leave me to this bitter fate. Take me to the forest!" Moshe was faced with a horrible dilemma. In the library were two women: One was a young and beautiful woman, his wife, and the second, middle-aged, was his mother. Moshe stood by the window and chewed his nails. Whom should he save? The headquarters allowed him to take only one relative. He was a loyal son, but how could he let go of his beloved wife? He chose his wife; but the bitter fate was that as soon as his wife arrived at the forest, she was killed.
The different units started leaving for the forest. There were eight units - five units of the FPO that contained about one hundred and fifty fighters and three units that were organised independently. In the unit that was under the command of Moshe Judka Rudnitski were the authors Avraham Sutzkever and S. Kaczerginski.
Yung-Vilne standing, left to right : Shmerke Katsherginsky, Avrom Sutzkever, Elkhonen Vogler, Khayim Grade, Leyzer Volf; siting: Moyshe Levin, Sheyne Efron, Shimshn Kahan, Rokhl Sutzkever, Bentsye Mikhtom
The Ruins of Vilna, 1943
My Unit Goes to the Forest
The day for my unit to go to the forest arrived. It was the evening of September 11th. Although I had stayed in the ghetto the whole time since arriving, Aba now took me through dark halls and wooden stairways and secret openings in ceilings and walls until we arrived at a locked door. He knocked three times on the door, and we entered a dimly-lit room. Thirty young men who seemed very stressed received us. Aba Kovner said, "I would like to introduce Shura, who has come to us as a member of the Jewish partisans from the division Nekama in the forests of Naroch. Today you will leave for the forest under his command. Your meeting will take place in the cemetery Barusa. You have to all meet each other in Jaktowa Street number – ."
I explained to them the details of how they should behave on the road. An hour later, they dispersed. At eight, Shmulik Kaplinski, one of the bravest fighters of the FPO, stood next to the gate in Jatkowa Alley. This gate was known as the Gate of Death, since it had been used as the last gate for the thousands of Jews taken to concentration camps or the Ponar killing fields. The head of the Judenrat - Gens - had the key to this gate. Shmulik Kaplinksi had a secret copy of the key but said, "It seems like our mission will fail, as the dog is here." I looked back and saw the traitor policeman Nikka Dreizin standing there and whistling quietly. Meanwhile, I saw dark shadows coming from a different direction and the entire group arrived and stood there. Everyone whispered, "Why are we standing here?" Standing was indeed torturous; everyone had some weapon among his belongings, and finally Chyena Borovski and Vidka arrived. They whispered something to each other standing aside. Shmulik came and said quietly to me, "We are going to leave." We walked to the Rudnitski Alley. We entered a gate and went up on dark steps that took us to an attic. I held Shmulik's hand, since everything was dark and you couldn't see a thing. Someone else held my clothes; and, like this, we walked in a line, hunched over, until we got to a certain hall in the building. "Beware," said Shmulik. "You go down first, until you find yourself on the Aryan side. Then knock on the right door and say, 'Mr. Jan, it's me.' "
Together with a few comrades I left. We reached the door, and I pointed my little light at it. I saw a plaque saying 'Jan Piatshak, dozoratza'. I knocked quietly. Nobody answered. Putting my ear to the door, I could hear voices. I knocked a little louder. I could hear someone approaching the door and opening it quietly. A smell of alcohol and sour pickles was very strong. In the fat face of Jan, his little pig eyes moved quickly from side to side. He whispered, "What do you want, kikes?" in an angry tone. "Open the door downstairs," I said quietly. "Misters, not today. They are sitting here, don't you see?"
"But we agreed on this, Jan!" We could hear the wild singing of drunken Germans. They were singing 'Susana, Eva Susana' rowdily.
Simka Palavski approached him and
put something in his hand, and said, "Jan, you know me. Take this and open
the gate." Jan took his little bribe and looked at us as if he were deaf
and dumb. "Comrades!" he whispered, "this is not a
peaceful day! If they catch you leaving the gate I will be doomed. And anyway,
why are you giving me papers? What good do they do? I want a watch!" Someone
took a watch from his hand and put it into the thick, bearlike hand of Jan.
"Ok, we will see..." he said. "Come back in an hour."
We were very nervous. We had given him a dirty bribe, and still he did not comply. So I put my hand in my pocket and, with the end of my gun, I pressed against Jan's protruding belly. He became fearful and in a very sweet voice said, "Comrades, I didn't really mean it. It's just that you gave me so little..." "Jan! We can't wait any more! Quickly!" We were shocked and at a loss about what to do. The wife of Jasha Raf gave him her silk stockings. Finally, he was satisfied. "Ok, good, follow me." He started going down the stairs, and we followed him. He approached the gate but could barely walk and, in a drunk and garbled speech, said, "Piasha kariv, where is it!?" He was looking for the hole in which to put the key. Finally, the gate opened and we quickly passed through. We found ourselves on Nimjatka Street - a dark alley with drawn blinds. There was not one living soul walking on the streets, although occasionally one could hear the sounds of German officers marching in their boots.
Finally, we arrived at the Cemetery Barusa and hid among the gravestones. Nearby, I saw someone who was tall and skinny and held a violin case in his hand. He disappeared. I lay behind a stone; my watch showed that it was ten o'clock. I heard a quiet whistle. The moon came out from behind the cloud and cast a silvery glow on the cemetery. Behind the gravestones, people started standing up. The person with the violin case opened the case and took out a machine gun. Together, one after another like ducks, we began walking. Across from us came a Christian woman. When she saw us coming out from behind graves, she started screaming, "Ghosts! Ghosts from Hell!" and ran away quickly.
We started walking toward the forest. We arrived at train tracks. We could see German soldiers on either side of the tracks. All of a sudden we heard a train whistle. We came out of the bushes and crawled across the track. At one point, I ordered everyone to get up and run. We crossed the tracks, but suddenly I heard one of the girls yelling, "Help me! I've fallen!" I jumped and pulled her to the side at the last second - the train was only a few moments away from us. At that moment, I lost my bag with my drawings and my papers fell all over the train tracks. I tried to collect them, but the wind blew them away and I was able to collect only a few. I ran to the forest and rejoined the group.
After walking for seven days, we arrived at the Naroch Forest and joined the Nekama division. Now the number of people in the unit was 260. Josef Glazman was the head of the troop, which split into five classes, one headed by Chaym Lazar, another by Bomke Bojarski, the third by me, and two others whose names I don't remember. Boris Groinman became head of the base. [I spoke to Boris Groinman about a year ago, in 2003. His grandson got in touch with me. They live in Australia. Trans.] People were quickly organized. They had dedication and commitment; we trained them in weaponry, and we started taking part in combat. We took part in battles against the German garnisons [garrisons] in Miadzol and Koblinik, as well as fighting against the underground Polish White Resistance. We - the members of Nekama - joined other units in this mission and were part of the revolt against the Nazis.
During the evenings we sat around the bonfire and sang Jewish partisan songs. Conducting the songs were Shmerke Kaczerginski and the captain, Vlodya Tichonov. The songs were sung both in Yiddish and Russian.
1. Chana Pozner 3.Chanas’ father; Mordechai Pozner 2, Yechiel Borgin
Especially talented were the solo singers Yehiel Borgin,
Mordechai Posner, and his daughter Chana. Each one of them had a beautiful
voice and could carry a tune well. The entire division would sit around the
bonfire telling our war stories. That special camaraderie drew other Jews who
belonged to other divisions, as well as non-Jews, to ask to join our division.
Sadly, our division existed for only three months. The headquarters of the
brigade was against establishing a Jewish combat unit, since they did not see
Jews as a separate nationality; and after three months they split us.
From the series: “Partisans”, 1949
The Brigade of the White Polish
One morning, a messenger arrived from the brigade headquarters with an order: The division of Nekama had to get ready for a mission. All the fighters had to go with a weapon to a forest thicket a few kilometers away, taking position in a frontal line and then waiting for orders. Nobody knew exactly what the orders would be. We lay between the tall pine trees and waited impatiently for instruction. We knew that something important was about to occur. We could see from all sides of us that many Russian divisions came and held position. Messengers ran from one place to another to transfer orders from the headquarters of the brigade. We lay there with our weapons drawn toward an opening in the forest and waited for the order to open fire, but no order came. All of a sudden, we saw a large camp of partisans walking toward the direction of the clearing. We were very surprised to see that all of these people were without weapons - they looked devastated and downcast, walking in groups of four. I lay down with my drawn weapon and examined the rows of advancing people. Externally, they looked like any other partisans. I could not figure out what had happened.
All of a sudden, one of them looked at me. Our eyes met, and I yelled, "Jank, what is happening here?" I had studied with Jank in high school. He was the only Polish kid in the Jewish-Polish gymnasium in Vilna. He was a good-looking guy, tall and splendidly built, very friendly and liked by everyone. Now he was walking here among the lines of Polish partisans without weapons. They were POWs being taken to their deaths! I could not exchange any words with him, and he disappeared as if it had all been a dream. I could not imagine that Jank, who was so good-hearted, could belong to a group of anti-Semites who killed Jews. They were the Armia Krajowa (AK). Only a short time passed before we heard shots from the direction of the clearing. Then a deathly quiet descended.
The Polish who lived in White Russia and Lithuania had organized themselves into an armed force much like the Russian Resistance. At first, they communicated with the Soviet resistance, hoping that when the war ended the Soviets would return to Poland Vilna and White Russia. Clearly, most of the Polish population supported the AK, which had instructions from the Polish Government in Exile in London. The intention of the Polish government did not seem pure in the eyes of Moscow, which feared that the AK would strengthen Polish [desire for] independence. The Soviet government intended to unite the two parts of Belarus - the western part, which had belonged to Poland between 1920 and 1939, and the eastern part, which was a republic of the Soviet Union. Because of that intention, the headquarters of the Soviet partisan movement in Belarus and Lithuania received orders from Moscow to get rid of the AK.
Colonel Markov, the head of the Voroshilov Brigade, had sent an order to all divisions in the Naroch Forest to get rid of the Polish brigade that still had some ties with Russian partisans. On this day, all the fighters that belonged to the Polish brigade were ordered to come, without weapons, to this clearing in the forest and meet their Russian comrades. When the Polish brigade arrived, the Soviets put fifteen of the commanders in a line and, after they [the Soviets] read what [the commnders] were guilty of, which was resistance to the Soviet rulers, they were killed on the spot.
Only the leaders were killed. Most of the Polish fighters were added to different Soviet regiments. As time passed, they escaped and organized their own unit. They started fighting the Russian partisans and killing Jews, collaborating with the SS. After the punishment, I saw hundreds of Polish resistance soldiers returning from this execution that took place in the clearing. They appeared very shaken; I looked for Jank, my classmate, but could not find him among the returnees.
The Attack, 1944
The Splitting of the Brigade Nekama
It was the end of summer; the weather was splendid. The tall pine trees in the forest spread the aromatic smell of their sap, and the sun's rays pierced through the needles and stroked the meadows and the base of the Nekama Division. On the 23rd of September, 1943, Polokovnik Markov gathered the Nekama Division. He came, together with people from headquarters and the secretary of the Communist Party in the Vileyka region - Comrade Kalimov. Markov arranged for a roll-call; and in short pithy sentences he established that in this division many people had no weapons, no military training, and no experience. The weapons that we did have must be given to partisans who were more experienced but lacked weapons. He promised that soon the Soviets would parachute some weapons from Moscow and the members of Nekama would receive new weapons.
Meanwhile, the division would be split into two parts. One part would become a professional unit that would be responsible for non-combative duties; the rest, together with their weapons, would join the Belarussian division by the name Komsomolski, and they would establish a new division by the name of Kalinin. The duties of the professional unit Proizvodizyana Grupa, would be to take care of the needs of combating partisans from other units. They would be shoe-makers and tailors. He ordered all people of such professions to get out of the lines of people who had no weapons. He said that he needed sixty people for the professional unit, and they would be transferred to another space. They would receive only two rifles and five guns, and with these weapons they had to get food that would be sufficient for sixty people and defend themselves. As their commander, Markov appointed Boris Groinman ( later lived in Australia, was in touch with his son- T) . When Markov was finished, comrade Kalimov started talking. He emphasized that he principally opposed the existence of a separate Jewish entity, as the Jews were not a nation and did not have their own republic. The partisan movement, he said, was built according to national territorial bounds that existed in the Soviet Union so that all Belarussian citizens should serve in a Belarussian unit, all Lithuanian citizens should serve in a Lithuanian unit, and others should also serve according to the republic they came from. He suggested that Nekama, despite the fact that it was a combat division, caused anger in the local population and contributed to anti-Semitism, weakening the struggle of the Soviet Union against the Nazi enemy. He said that many of the non-Jewish partisans were influenced by Nazi propaganda and did not approve of Jewish combat units. Vlodka Saulovich
Among [those in] the headquarters of Markov was Vlodka Saulovich. Vlodka had taken part in battles against the Germans already in 1942, ever since the first battle against the Nazis by the Resistance at the beginning of the organization of Soviet partisans in the Naroch Forest. Vlodka, by his very nature, was not subservient. He was a hooligan and an anti-Semite. Still, he was very brave and a good fighter; and as time passed, he started bothering Markov about the issue. Markov tried to get rid of him. He did not want to be responsible for him. He now found this opportunity of uniting the two divisions - Nekama and Komsomolski. Markov made him the head of this new division, Kalinin.
As Vlodka took control, he walked among the lines of fighting Jews and took their weapons. From the women he took the guns they had brought from the ghetto. The girls started complaining, saying that they had not come here to hide but to fight. He also took the machine gun that Yehiel Borgin had. The weapons that he took from the Jews he transferred to the Belorussian partisans. The Soviet authorities seemed to have done much to prevent the Jews from organizing their own unit. This event with Nekama was not the only such experience for Jews. Many attempts to create Jewish units were completely denied by Soviet partisans. On that occasion, I received an order from Markov to take a group of thirty people a distance of about seventy kilometers in order to confiscate horses from the villagers in the area. The aim of the brigade was to organize a unit of horseback riders. As my assistant, Markov appointed a Soviet partisan by the name of Ivan Ivanovich. Most of the time I spent with Ivan Ivanovich he lay in a carriage with liquor in his hand, completely drunk. Ivanovich was a friendly guy who knew all the trails in the forest; but I could not get much help from him, as he was always drunk.
Meanwhile, a blockade started. About forty thousand German soldiers, equipped with automatic weapons and artillery as well as air power, started crossing the forest. They walked in long, long lines through the forest, burning villages and killing residents. The headquarters ordered partisans to leave the Naroch Forest and try to break through the ring of German soldiers in order to get to the Kazian Forest. The situation of the unarmed single Jews and families that lived in the forest near the partisans became horrible. Some of the Jews were able to get to the swamps of the Neva and hide there, surviving these awful conditions of starvation and exhaustion. When I returned after the blockade to the base, my wife Rachel told me what had occurred while I was away at the base of the Nekama division.
The Rescue of the Wounded, 1943
Ink on paper
The Story of Rachel Bogen (as told by her)
Rachel Bogen nee Shachor (
born in Vilna in 1914 passed away in Israel 1998)
The Jews were ordered to come before the headquarters of the division. One by one, they were called inside. Saulovich, the head of the division, informed them that the division needed more weapons, especially as the blockade was to occur any minute. In order to acquire weapons, he said that he needed cash, gold, watches, and other valuables. Each Jew who entered his headquarters was thoroughly searched, and any leather jackets or boots were taken away. The searches took place the entire morning. People who waited outside did not understand what was going on. These people were gentiles, and the only people checked were the Jewish partisans. After each search, the Jews who were done had to join another group that stood far away on the other side; and they were not allowed any communication with people who were waiting in line to enter. This action upset the Jews greatly; the atmosphere was filled with explosive spirit.
Vlodka then divided the partisans into a few groups. He ordered Groinman to take the wounded to partisans in the swamps of the Neva together with a doctor and medics. Heading a well-armed unit, Vlodka left the base of Komsomolski and transferred to the Chapaev base, leaving behind a unit with no weapons and no form of defense. Small groups of people started walking toward the Neva swamps. Two days before the blockade started, Tusia, the wife of Vlodka, went into labor and had a son. At that point, he sent two armed units near the Neva to scout the area and he headed a unit of the best fighters and went on the road.
As I said, Vlodka sent all the unarmed people away; but my mother and I were an exception. He must have felt some responsibility, since the headquarters of the brigade had sent my husband on an important mission. While we were walking, I started walking slowly behind Vlodka's unit, since my mother became very tired. We had no choice but to join another unarmed group that walked to the Neva swamps. We used some planks to bridge the more dangerous parts of the swamp. This was a very dangerous walk, since at any moment we could fall in. In front of me walked a Jewish man who was from the area and knew all the trails of the forest. With one hand I held on to him and with the other onto my mother. All of a sudden, she slipped the plank she was walking on and fell into the swamp. Two men tried to get her out but were not able to. She started drowning. In the last minute, in exhaustion and desperation, I caught her arms and pulled her. She was covered in sticky mud that came above her waist.
After we walked for a few more hours along the planks, we arrived at a dry island and lay down to rest in a cellar that the villagers had built in order to store hay. It was night. We were very hungry and exhausted and found a sack of flour. We removed the thick hard exterior of the grain, and made some sort of soup from flour and water.
I became sick with dysentery and could no longer walk. Many people had infections and sores all over their legs. Among the people with us was Garberovich and his wife. She was sick with typhus and had a fever of over 40 degrees. Two men helped her walk, and she trudged on with the rest of us. After some days she finally recovered and was able to walk on her own. Finally, the explosives and shots subsided, and one of the guys was sent to scout the area. He returned, saying that the blockade was finished. Meanwhile, my husband Alexander returned to the Komsomolski base and sent an armed partisan in a carriage to bring us there. Together with some women who were sick and could not walk, we were put on the carriage and taken to the base.
When I arrived, a nasty message had been sent from headquarters. They said that my husband shot at Vlodka and Vlodka was badly wounded, while my husband was imprisoned. All of a sudden, in the middle of the night, my husband came without any weapons. His spirit was broken; he told me what had occurred the day before and explained that after what had happened with Vlodka, he had been sent away from the division and his weapon taken away.
The Occurrence with Vlodka (by Alexander Bogen)
A morning filled with sun shone on the somber faces of the partisans, who walked in a grim line in the verdant fields and forests. The surroundings were calm and laid-back. Inside, their hearts were filled with worry. People were whispering that Vlodka refused to accept any Jewish partisans who didn't bring weapons with them. Litman Murawczyk approached me and asked me if his bb gun would get him in. I said I would talk to the commander on his behalf. I knew him from high school; he was a year younger than I. Before the war he was already a student in Vilna University. When I returned from the forest to the Vilna Ghetto to bring some young Jews to the partisans, I had him join my group. I could not stand seeing him so helpless without aiding him, so I took his bb gun and approached Vlodka. He took the gun in hand and checked it from hand to hand, saying, "We will see."
He did not return the gun and started walking away. For one minute, I froze and everything came crashing down. It was as if the ground had fallen out from under my feet. Only one thought came to my head: I must return this gun to its owner. I jumped on Vlodka, who kept walking, and held on with all my might to the hand that was holding the gun. His face became red in anger, and his gray eyes were filled with red flames. I would not let his hand go and held on to it even more strongly. All of a sudden, a shot was heard. He [Vlodka] fell flat on the ground. I continued holding onto his hand and fell to my knees. I could hear yells echoing in my ears. Someone shook me strongly and yelled in my face: "Spy! Murderer! You killed the Commander!"
Four armed partisans surrounded me and took my weapon. They started searching me, and from my backpack they took my notebook with my drawings and started making fun of the pictures. Slowly, I returned to consciousness. I saw how they put the wounded Vlodka on the carriage. Doctor Naomi Gordin took care of him and addressed his wounds. His face was pale as chalk. The bullet had entered his stomach and was stuck his thigh. Tusia, his wife, held on to him.
I jumped toward them and yelled with all my might, "Vlodka! If you are right, order that I should be shot with the same gun!" The wounded Vlodka did not answer; his eyes closed and his face was filled with painful grimacing. He tried to say something but could not. He lifted his arm but could not hold it up, and his arm fell to his side helplessly. Sounds of anger came from the lines of Russian partisans. "Here is the murderer of our Commander!" It was like a storm in the atmosphere. A small group of Jews who had arrived with me were standing at a distance, and each one stood a distance away with a weapon in his hand. They took me to a thicket in the forest. A strange apathy filled me.
What difference would it make to me, I thought, if I lived for a few hours more or was shot on the spot? I looked at the tops of the trees and the rays of sun that painted the pine branches a multitude of colors. Birds were singing. Soon everything would be gone, and I would be standing in front of a firing squad. My comrade partisans would pull the trigger, and never again would I see the sunlight and the verdant trees. My ears would no longer hear birds singing. A thought came to my mind that despite all the tragedies that had occurred, I still was able to have Vlodka, this anti-Semite hooligan, pay the consequences of his deeds. The headquarters commander did not want to take such a responsibility. He did not want to make a mistake, so he decided to wait for permission from the main headquarters before they would execute me.
He thought that this was a much better idea. It would make the execution legal and take the responsibility away from him, and he would not need not make a report. The messenger that was sent for instructions from headquarters returned, and everybody was whispering something and guarding me very carefully. I imagined that I could hear the sounds of the loading of the guns. At that moment, a messenger came to the wounded Vlodka and asked for permission to execute me. Vlodka, with all the energy that he could muster, yelled, "He will stay alive, and this is an order!"
At this moment, all of a sudden, it came to me. Vlodka, who was many times drunk, evil, and anti-Semitic, had once said to me, "Alexander, don't tell anyone you are a Jew. Why get yourself in trouble? Here, look at me. The truth is I had one Jewish grandmother. But nobody knows about it."
As soon as I was released from my imprisonment I went to the headquarters of the brigade and asked them to return my weapon. With a letter from Markov, I went to a village near the forest and my weapon was returned to me by a commander. My mood greatly improved, but still I was not assigned to any partisan unit. I went to Markov, the commander of the brigade, and suggested the establishment of a new, smaller Jewish unit. To my surprise, Markov immediately agreed. I explained my feeling about Jewish combat units. At that point, the Red Army was drawing nearer to our area and liberating occupied territories. Now there was an immediate need to clear this entire region so it would make their advance easier. Markov agreed with me; and, on the spot, he dictated a permit to his secretary saying, "I'm sending Oreg Grupa that contains twenty people for a special mission. The commander of this unit will be Alexander Katzenbogen. The commissar will be Leizer Shapira. At this point, their mission is planned to have a duration of two months." I was very surprised that he was so positive, but in reality the brigade was desperately in need of a field airport in order to receive weapons that were now much more frequently sent from Moscow to the partisans. The front was now nearing Naroch, and Moscow sent urgent orders to increase the number of sabotage missions and to forcefully take over the German. So I returned to the Komsomolski base, where there were many weaponless Jews; as soon as people heard about the unit, they asked me to let them join. Most of the people who asked were Jews from the area, especially from Svencian, Kurenetz, Lintup, and a few FPO members. I remember in particular Leib Gurevich, Shimon Zimmerman from Kurenetz,
Riva Gordon and Shimon Zimmerman, members of the partisan brigade, Volroshilov. Narooch Forest, 1943
Simka and Ruvka Levin, Chencinski, Shaike Gertman, Chaym Chlor, Litman Murawczyk, Zalman Gurevich from Kurenetz, Leizer Shapira, Ester Shutan, Mishka Gilinski, Hirshke Charmatz, and others whose names I have forgotten.
Josef - Julek Charmac
and Senka Nisilewicz, members of the Jewish underground
The first duty assigned to our unit was to guard the partisan airport near the village Loz. This airport was in a clearing in the forest; during night time, the planes would come from Moscow and parachute weapons, ammunition, and other supplies for the fighting brigades. We were assigned to keep constant watch around the airport for any German attacks. We were told that if Germans attacked, we had to immediately respond with fire and inform the brigade. Whenever anyone would come, we had an agreement that we would burn bonfires and make signs for the planes so they would know where to parachute their weapons and supplies. Markov saw our job as very important because it helped [the partisans] get a lot of high-quality weapons in large quantities that were sent from the distant partisan headquarters.r
Markov visited us often in the airport, and he would always emphasize how important the job was. My great disappointment was that we had taken the assignment in hopes of receiving some of the weapons that were parachuted in, but to my sorrow this promise was never fulfilled. After a month we were replaced and sent to other jobs. We learned that there were many weapons in a certain village. We arrived there one winter night, surrounded it, and started checking the homes of Polish farmers who were members of the AK. I entered one of their homes, where I knew such a person lived. Avraham Rein, Hirsch Charmatz, and Litman Murawczyk came with me.
Litman Murawczyk (Mor)
While we talked to the farmer and
his two sons, Murawczyk hit his rifle on the floor and a bullet flew out,
hitting the ceiling. The farmer became very scared and immediately said that a
neighbor across from him had a cellar where he hid many rifles.
When we came to the neighbor and asked for the rifles, he denied having them; and in spite of the fact that we beat him badly, he refused to confess. So I ordered him to go outside and staged a mock trial with him. I said he was to receive a death penalty because he refused to give weapons for the Resistance. I made him dig a hole to be buried in; and as he worked, I occasionally said, "You can still save your life if you tell us where the weapons are." The air was filled with tension and nervousness. I could not break this man.
We had no choice but to place him standing in the hole with a shovel in his hand and half of his body protruding. Meanwhile, the farmer's wife, who did not know her husband's fate, told the other guys where the weapons were hidden and we found rifles and ammunition there.
We confiscated six sleighs and horses and left. When we arrived at the village of Malniki near the bridge by the lake and the mill, we entered one of the homes of the farmers and they gave us food. While I was sitting there, a partisan came and said, "Commander, the Germans!"
I ordered all the fighters to run to their sleighs and go in the direction of the forest, but at that moment the Germans opened fire. Some jumped into the lake and swam to the other side. This night was very, very dark. When we finally all gathered at the hill, we opened fire. When the Germans' shooting had subsided, we entered the forest. I walked first and the rest walked in a line behind me. We all held each other's hands, as it was very dark. I walked with my free hand out in front of me, touching the trees. In this way I found the road. The entire night, we walked through the forest. The next morning we learned from the partisans that a fierce battle had occurred between the Germans and the partisans here. This story was very strange. Not even one of my people was wounded! We were all healthy and well.
Here is what we found out: The Germans were aiming
too high, and they killed all of our horses and lambs, which were following us;
and when they saw the blood all over the snow, they mistook it as blood from a
partisan massacre. After one night of walking, we arrived at the edge of the
forest and I went with Simka Levin to the village to see if the Germans were
there. We entered the first home on our road. The very frightened farmer there
said that Germans had searched the village. He was badly beaten. They had tried
to learn about the partisans. He begged us to leave his house, as he feared the
Germans would return and torture him. When we returned, Markov invited me to
the headquarters of the brigade. He gave us a very special mission: to scout
the area, and look for strategic locations, weapons, bunkers of the German
camp. We were to draw a map of it.
At this point I planned to go to Vilna, so I made Abraham Rein the commander of the unit to carry out the mission. He took nine people with him - Shaike Gertman, the brothers Levin, Hirsch Charmatz, Chencinski,, Mishka Gilinski, Leibke Gurevich, and Chaym Klor. When they arrived at the hut near the village Lintup, they entered the home of a farmer they knew well. The second day, they decided to go to a bathouse. Abraham Rhein had very old boots, so he left the bathhouse and went to the home of a well-to-do farmer by the name of Bukovski, whose house was next door. He took from him some better boots and happily rejoined the rest of the group. Bukovski sent his daughter to the police, [and she] told them partisans were in the house of the neighbor. Germans and Lithuanians immediately arrived and surrounded the house. A battle ensued. Leibke Gurevich jumped out of the house and ran with drawn gun in the direction of the Nazi machine gun. He was wounded but continued to run and jumped on the Nazi holding the gun, killing him. Shaike Gertman was badly wounded; he kept shooting with his Parablum and threw grenades. When he was totally exhausted, he killed himself. Hirshke Charmatz and one of the Levin brothers were killed; Moshe Gilinski was wounded in his hand and Chaym Klor in his stomach. The two guys who were wounded and the rest of the fighters were able to find the rest of the unit, which was at that point on the way to Vilna.
The Road to Vilna
Sometime at the end of 1943, I was given a mission to get weapons from a hideout belonging to a Polish man in a suburb of Vilna. I was told there were twenty automatic machine guns that were to be transferred to the brigade. We found out about this hideout from a Jewish partisan by the name of Yerachmiel Pilovski. When we let Markov know about it, he gave the okay for the mission
We left on a very bright night;
the moon lit the road, and the tall pine trees threw a shadow on the thick snow.
On the way we encountered two partisan units, both of which warned us not to
continue, saying that Germans were bunkered on the sides of the road. Despite
the warning, I decided to cross the road. I was very surprised to see signs of
sleighs, boots, and dogs on the snow. We went in a long line - first walked the
scout, a villager from a nearby village. All of a sudden, a distance away, I
saw a wolf. I was ready with my weapon, but as we came nearer I realized it
wasn't a wolf but a Great Dane. The dog did not move. I turned my head and saw
another dog of the same kind on the left side. The dogs sat unmoving and looked
into our eyes. All of a sudden, they started retreating, and just then the
Germans opened fire. I gave an order to lie on the ground but nobody was
listening to me and only I lay on the ground. Under fire, my friends were able
to retreat and get behind a hill to an area where they were safe. I continued
to lie in the deep snow - I could not get up. The dogs came near me and started
barking. I tried to get up but couldn't do it. Maybe it was fear that froze my
legs - the dogs were only a few meters away from me; the Germans kept shooting,
and I felt sure my end was near. My life passed before me as if it had been a
movie - my childhood, my family, my university, and my beloved wife. Finally, I
was able with the last of my might to lift my gun; and with my frozen fingers I
pulled the trigger and started shooting in all directions. The Germans stopped
their shooting, probably to try to estimate the number of partisans against
them. I used this moment and, with all my might, was able to get up and run to
the area where the rest of the group was.
One time, when I returned from one of the missions, I entered the home of a farmer to rest and eat something. While sitting there and drinking vodka, we conversed about the happenings in the area and about the location of the Germans. While we talked, some of my comrades checked the home of the farmer and took a few clothing items and food. When we arrived at the base to give Markov the details of our mission, I was very surprised to see the same farmer standing next to the commander, Colonel Markov. I immediately understood that he was a contact for the partisans, since one could not get to the headquarters of the brigade unless one had a special permit.
After the meeting with Markov, Fronko, a contact between the NKVD and the brigade, came to me and said, "You are looting the farmers here." He drew his gun and ordered me to go to a nearby swamp. My wife came and asked him what he was blaming her husband for. Fronko stopped and said, "He must return within five minutes everything he plundered from the farmer." My wife immediately ran to my friends, and each returned what he had taken. Momentarily I was released, but a few hours later I was again imprisoned and put in a tent made of hay on top of the snow. I was left all alone in the bitter cold and wind. Luckily, there were a few Jewish partisans from the Soborov Division near where I was imprisoned, and secretly they brought me a fur coat and food. I did not know what my fate would be. Meanwhile, my wife came to Markov and asked [him] to release me, as I was innocent and my hands were clean. He said, "Your husband is responsible for robbery and looting by his unit at the home of a farmer who is helping partisans and is our contact. For doing such a thing he will receive a death penalty."
My wife Rachel would not let go of him and kept begging him. These were moments of great fear for her; she thought he really would go through with this grim punishment. It seems that her pleas affected Markov; he thought for a while and this quiet moment tore at the nerves of Rachel. Finally, he said, "This time, I will consider what you are saying and I will punish him with only five days of imprisonment. But if ever again such a thing should occur, there will be no mercy. He will be executed."
After some days I was released and returned to my unit. To my surprise, the only person remaining was my wife. While I was imprisoned, the unit had been dissolved, and the fighters sent to various Soviet divisions. Now I understood that they had used this opportunity to get rid of this Jewish unit in this way. This is one example of many where the Soviets dissolved an independent Jewish unit for political reasons.
With Sumauskas, the Head of the Lithuanian Brigade
Once again, I found myself without a unit. I went to Sumauskas, the head of the Lithuanian Brigade and asked that he let me join. Sumauskas knew that I was a brave partisan and also knew that I used to draw for the partisan paper Silalskiya Gazeta. The mother of my wife - Sara Shachor - lived in the zimlanka that belonged to the family of Nathan Gurevich [the brother of the translator's grandfather - Trans.] from Kurenetz.
Natan Gurevitch with Family in 1936 ( son Zalman Uri is second from the left)
The condition in the forest was difficult, and it was hard to get food. The son of Nathan, Zalman Gurevich, was a brave partisan in my division. He was a loyal comrade and friend and knew all the Zalman Uri Gurevitz
In the forest, 1943, A. Bogen
trails in the forest very well. He knew about the situation
with my mother-in-law and asked permission of my family for his family to take
her so she wouldn't be alone. With the assistance of that family, she was able
to pass this very dangerous period and all the calamities and dangers that they
faced in the forest. I saw it as my duty to help the family that helped my
mother-in-law and get them some food. Occasionally I would approach the
commander of the brigade and explain to him the difficult conditions that the
families hiding in the forest faced. I explained that they had no weapons and
nobody to defend them.
The commander, Sumauskas, would always say that he would try to help me, but never really gave any food for the families. I become impatient, but still I was helpless, not knowing what I could do.
Once when I was guarding at night, I decided to take some food from storage to give to the Gurevitch family. So I went there and carried a sack of peas, hiding it not far from where I was guarding, hoping to bring it to the Gurevitch family the first chance I had. It was my bad luck that at that moment a unit of Lithuanian partisans were returning from a mission. Since I was not guarding where I was supposed to guard at that particular moment, when they called the code word nobody answered. This caused a great stir in the base, and the whole base became frantic. When I finally returned, I was called to Sumauskas, who said that I had betrayed his trust and disappointed the entire base. What did I deserve for such an action? A death penalty.
I was very embarrassed, and said I understood how awful my action had been. Sumauskas recommended that I disappear immediately as if I had never been there. I left and returned to the base of the Markov Brigade. I must say I was not the only partisan who helped the families in the forest. Many Jewish partisans used every opportunity to bring food to the Jewish camps that needed help, support, and defense against the Germans, and also sometimes [help] the women in these camps, who were occasionally molested by the Gentile partisans.
At that point, they sent me on a mission to capture the history of the brigade named after Voroshilov. The other members of that particular mission were the poet Avraham Sutzkever, the author Shmerke Kaczerginski, two people from Russia, and a secretary. I was to draw sketches of the battle as well as to sketch commanders and other partisans, so I went to the different units with my sketchpad and charcoal. I was always warmly received by the commanders of the unit, who looked favorably upon being immortalized for their missions and bravery.
The Story of Bomke Bojarski
Bomke Bojarski was the second commander of the Otriad Nekama. He was a young man, around 21 years old, a native of Dniepopetrovsk. In 1941, he visited Grodno and never had a chance to return to his hometown. From Grodno, he escaped to Vilna, where he served for a while as a policeman. Together with the group of Moshe Shutan, he escaped and reached the Naroch forest. Since he was a vostochnik (a person born in the eastern part of the area which was part of the Soviet Union prior to 1939), he quickly gained the trust of the head of the brigade. Since he became friends with them, they appointed him as head of the Otriad Nekama. When Nekama was dissolved, Bomke became commander of the scouting otriad by the name of Kalinin.
Bomke was of average height, with wide, thick shoulders. He was very warm, with a good sense of humor, and very brave. His face always had a huge and very friendly smile. The only negative thing I can think of to say about him is that he was at times impatient. In his actions, he surprised his Belorussian and Soviet friends and was a source of pride for the Jews.
One time he was sent, together with two other scouts, on a sabotage mission. The mission was successful, but they encountered Germans on the way back. The youngest among them - a twenty-six-year-old Jew - fell immediately. Bomke was badly wounded in the stomach and was taken to the base. He suffered from terrible pains for a long time; but when he had recovered somewhat, the brigade assigned him to a non-combat job. He refused to take it and said he had to return to combat and insisted that he wanted to be the commander of the scouts, as he had been before. As time passed, he recovered, many of his skills returned, and he took part in many combat activities against the Nazi enemy.
At the beginning of winter, 1943, the commander of the camp I traveled to was a very nice person and did not show any anti-Semitism. I walked around the barracks and looked for interesting people to draw. I encountered a Tatar who was very interesting looking. He was of the highest military rank, of strong stature, good-looking, and had a clearly Oriental facial structure.
While I was drawing this man, the head of the Otriad - a Ukranian man who had only recently escaped from a POW camp and joined the partisans - entered the room. When he saw my drawing, he approached the Tatar man and slapped his face. Then he came to me, and tore up my paper. Both the Tatar and I were in shock. I drew my gun and pointed it at him. When he saw my weapon, he walked away.
I entered the headquarters to complain to the supreme commander of the Otriad, Laskov, about the Ukrainian commander. I showed him the license I had received from Markov stating that I should interview and sketch resistance fighters. Laskov was very uncomfortable, saying that he didn't know the Ukrainian well and that he was new in his division and we must investigate his past.
While we were talking, a partisan arrived and said, "Comrade Commander, the Germans are coming!" We listened and could hear shots from afar. The commander immediately ordered Bomke to find where the enemy was. Bomke Bojarski jumped on his white horse and disappeared like a stone in the depths of a forest. He was followed by three of his scouts - Kim, Leib Khadash, and Vaska. They arrived at the nearest village and asked if there were any Germans. Somehow the answers given by the villagers didn't ring true to them; and so they continued scouting, hoping to find the enemy. When they arrived at a special clearing in the forest, someone started shooting. It turned out to be someone from the Belorussian police. Bomke fell first and was badly wounded.
He shot at them until [he had expended] his last bullet and then fell dead. Vaska, also, was mortally wounded. Kim was very badly wounded, and Leib Khadash carried the wounded Kim on his back while bullets were flying all around.
They arrived at the forest, but then Kim said to him, "Put me down here. I am dying." When the Germans reached Bomke, they recognized him as Bomke - a partisan renowned for his bravery - so they took out a bayonet and gouged out his eyes. The shots continued, and the whole division awaited their return; but they did not come back. So all the fighters jumped on sleighs that were harnessed to horses and hurried in the direction of the shooting. A few other divisions arrived and found the bodies that were in the clearing. We received an order to come near the lake and bunker ourselves there, opening fire on the enemy. The last soldiers were able to cross the frozen lake, and the Germans retreated. In the evening, the whole division stood at attention and Commando Laskov made a speech about Bomke, Kim, and Vaska, who had fallen as heroes defending the Soviet nation.
Naroch partisans commemoration, 2005
A meeting of the partisans from Narooch- Petach Tikva 1957
From top left; Moshe Shutan, fifth Zalman Uri Gurevitz, sixth Yaakov Shafran,
Middle; second from the left; Litman Mor ( nee Moravitz), Rela Rachel Bogen, ?, Alexander Bogen, ?, Moshe Yuda Rodnizki
Edited by Marjorie Stamm Rosenfeld
* September 27, 2004
I ( Eilat Gordin Levitan) called artist Alexander Bogen in Israel and told him about my translation of his chapter "The Onset of the Partisan Units in the Forest of Naroch"
Alexander asked me to include some text and pictures from his book "Revolt"
Naroch Forest, next to a zimlanka,1999- The Gurevitz family with Victor Ulizki, the mayor of Kurenets