by Dvora Rogovin Helberg
Translation from Hebrew
by Zvi Rogovin
Link to Hebrew Version
Chaya Rogovin, of blessed memory
Arad Israel 1998
""On Sunday, Elul 17th , 5702, (8/30/1942), the Vishnive ghetto was annihilated. The church bells began ringing early in the morning, announcing to the gentiles of the surrounding villages about the slaughter. By the thousands, they poured into town, filled its streets and gathered near the synagogue. They watched the victims burning, some still alive." (from the Vishnive Memorial Book, Published in Israel, 1972).
Two weeks later, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I was born in Eretz Israel. My parents are smiling happily in our pictures, proud of their first born child in a renewed homeland. I was growing up under the Mulberry tree between Hashachar and Avoda Streets in Kfar Saba. At that time there were only rumors about the Holocaust. People naively assumed that somehow their families would not be hurt.
Four years later, by the time my brother Zvika was born, all hopes were dashed. Shlomo Elishkevich my mother's cousin, a partisan, arrived and described in great detail the awful truth about our family.
My parents were devastated. My Mother was the youngest child of her family. Facing the cruel reality that she was the sole survivor, caused her nearly unbearable pain. Of my father's large family, only he along with his brother Gershon and sister Rivka were left .
I lovingly absorbed my parents' stories about the bygone world of their shtetl. I fully identified with their worries about life and death, family and children. It gave me a great desire to contribute happiness and security to my family and society, and to prove that goodness and righteousness still exist in this world. My personality has been shaped by these stories as much as by my growing up in Israel.
The ringing of the church bells on that Sunday the 17th Elul, 5702 (8/30/1942) is reverberating in my ears. It is reminding me that my coming into this world was meant to preserve the long chain of my family and to extend it to my descendants.
The following is a collection of stories about life in Vishnive* as reflected through the Elishkevich family saga. These stories were told to me by my Mother of blessed memory, Chaia Elishkevich Rogovin. The period covered based upon her own experience, is from World War I (1915) until her Aliyah to Eretz Israel in October, 1938. The description of the period from October 1938 until the end of World War II, including the destruction of the shtetl, is based upon family letters and Holocaust survivors testimonies.
In my Mother's final years, I tried with her help to reconstruct the events in her shtetl from her childhood to adulthood. Sometimes I tried to find her feelings during all of these events. "What do you need it for?" My mother asked. "I want to open a window to lives in a bygone world, and preserve the memories for the coming generations. You are our link to this world," I replied.
Mother died on the 20th Elul, 5760.
She was buried on the 22nd Elul, 5760, (9/22/2000).
Dvora ( Rogovin ) Helberg
* Vishnive, nowadays in Belarus, is also known as: Vishnev, Vishneva, Vishnevo, Vishniva, Visnava, Visneva, Visnevo, Viszniev, Wisznievo, Wiszniew, Wiszniewo.
The Shtetl is Burning
Not far from our shtetl, wild pigs lived in "Bombaler Vald" (a forest). Old timers were telling even about a bear which was found there, in a moss cave, hibernating in its long winter sleep. The forest contained ancient tall birch, spruce and oak trees. There were tasty fruits, especially blackberries, called "Yagdes" in our language. There were no flowers, but there were mushrooms, the Yellow "Lishitzes" which were tastier than meat. There were also small nuts, called "Terkisher Nis". Generally the forest was a place for "Sheigetz" (young gentile men) shepherds and their cows, and for hiding thieves. In front of "Bombaler Vald" there was an additional small forest called "Vertzimrer Veldl" which also contained birch and oak trees, mushrooms and blackberries. Gypsies who came twice a year from Hungary or Romania used to stay there. The gypsies would gather and sing because after all they were naturally musical. They were singing with so much emotion that it would touch your soul. Where did they get all these melodies?
I was a three year old little girl. You know how many years have passed? You do the calculation if I was born in 1912. It was summer time. I can imagine that in synagogue they were talking with concen about the approaching war. The family of Avraham Bini the baker lived in our home. My mother took pity on them after a fire destroyed their home on Pigs Street (In Vishnive there were always fires) and allowed them in. They were an older couple in good health with an "old maid" daughter. Their son and his family lived nearby. My mother allowed Avraham Bini to use our oven for his baking because he needed to make a living. What can I tell you. Her goodness was way beyond her capability. Avraham Bini had a horse and wagon in which he delivered bread to the whole shtetl. When he baked, the whole house would get filled with baking smells and terrible heat. This was not always that good.
That summer (1915), Russian soldiers entered Vishnive. I remember three armed soldiers entering our house in the afternoon. They strongly requested us to leave the house because they were going to burn everything. There was a sudden terror in the house. Mother cried and begged to no avail. "When can we return?" she asked. "Shortly, Shortly" they answered. I remember my father and my brothers Leibl and Yaacov-Hirsh digging a pit in the yard to hide housewares, precious to us. Tension, anxiety and nervousness. The soldiers hurried us. I remember that I was not upset at all from all the terrible "Tuml" (tumult). We could hardly take anything with us because we did not have a wagon. Mother asked Avraham Bini to take me and my sister Gitke who was two years older than me. I remember the soldiers putting dry straw to the closets and pouring kerosene.
All the shtetl residents were fleeing in all directions. We fled to "Bombaler Vald". Gitke and I were sitting on the wagon with Avraham Bini, his wife, his daughter who was a weak woman, and their two grandsons. One of them was my age. For me the whole event looked like a "game". Here we are sitting on a wagon, everybody is in a hurry, angry and upset, and I am feeling great having a lot of fun. Some went by foot and some were riding wagons. Gentiles were fleeing too, not only Jews. Noise and yelling, dust and excitement were all over the place. Many fled to hide in the forest till things get calm again.
The road to the forest was a natural path made of dirt and stones, and the sounds of walking and running accompanied the fleeing people. Only a few had wagons. There were old men and women who could barely move, children, and adults carrying few belongings they managed to pack. My mother, father and my older brothers were walking, loaded with bundles. Among other things they carried a big "Tchahon" iron pot and the "Drei Fis" (3 iron legs), so they could boil water for the kids. On the way, Yaacov-Hirsh saw a crying child. "Mame, mame, I want my mother, where is mother?". It seems this kid lost his family in the great confusion. His family came from Volozhin to visit their relatives in Vishnive, and they too had to flee as fast as they could. Yaacov-Hirsh took the kid on his shoulders. That way we got an additional child.
In the forest there is a great tumult. The natural grass becomes natural beds. Some people are sitting, some are standing, all are discussing "what will be". Gitke and I are sitting tightly on the wagon with the grandsons. We do not dare moving away because we are afraid of getting lost. Then my mother and father, my two older brothers and my two older sisters are arriving. Father and mother are boiling water. Hungry babies are crying.
People are standing in groups, some are wearing Taliths, holding Sidurs and praying Arvit. They manage to save the Torah Scrolls from the synagogue. I am watching the tall trees with their tops touching the sky. It is so beautiful. It is getting cooler. Further away the shtetl is burning. The long tongues of fire reach up to the sky. People are weeping. In contrast, we, the kids, are very happy to hear the sound of a cannon. After each cannon shot we dance. It is cool. The grown ups are telling us, the kids, to sleep under the wagon, to be protected from the dew and humidity of the forest. I think that the horse is also cold, because Avraham Bini covers it with an old blanket. We fall asleep, tired of all the tumult. In the morning we are awakened by the stinging of the "Murashkes" (ants), by the people's voices, and by hunger. It is dawn, some light and some darkness. Vishnive is still burning, but the tongues of fire are lower now. A very strong smell of burning is in the air.
It is noisy again. I am watching the sun rising slowly till it covers the sky. Nature is beautiful. A group of men covered with Talit are praying Shacharit. Women are boiling water. Kids are fighting who will eat first. Mothers shout and quiet the kids. We eat the bread which Avraham Bini the baker brought ,with the jam and tea that mother prepared, and feel great. The smell of the small fires under the "Drei Fis" is spreading across the forest. The women are baking potatoes in the sand. First they burn wood. Then, the potatoes are covered with sand. The hot embers are put on top of the sand with additional wood. Some of the potatoes are baked just right, and some are partially burnt. Everybody is hungry and eating with appetite.
Normally this is the hiding place for thieves. Who can distinguish now between thieves and non-thieves? Aside from our shtetl, this forest is now home to Jews from other nearby shtetls, and there is a lot of tumult and confusion. Do you know what it is like when they burn your house? You should better not know! But as you can understand, in my chidishness, I am not worried at all. Yaacov-Hirsh returns from Volozhin after taking the kid back to his family. He is terribly tired, after all the by-passing roads he had to take to avoid the Russian army.
After three days in the forest, there is a cease fire between the Russians and Germans. We were told we have the option of moving to the Russian side (Volozhin side) or to the German side (Olshani side). My mother chooses the Olshani side because my brother Yaacov-Hirsh is a draft dodger from the Russian army. My father paid 100 rubles bribe so that he will be declared medically unfit to serve as a Russian soldier.
"Oisgemutchet" (tortured) we decide to return to Vishnive. Avraham Bini and his family decide to move on towards the Russian side. Two more days will pass and the forest will return to its previous condition as if no human hand touched it. The shtetl is burned. The ground is also charred. Our house is burned. The smell of burning lingered over the whole town. The houses at the edge of town remained undamaged. It is interesting to note that your father's house, at the end of Volozhiner Gas (street) was not damaged. The synagogues and the Mikveh are burned. The Hekdesh was not burned. Imagine, our family is living in the Hekdesh (a shelter for poor people). Many families are there, with a lot of little and big children. No washing and no comfort facilities. People are relieving themselves under the open sky. Sleeping is on the floor or on stretcher type beds. Our family has plans to rebuild the house. My father already bought the lumber and talked with builders. But it was not meant to be.
On the eve of Rosh Hashana 1915 we found that the Germans are advancing and the Russians are withdrawing. I remember many Russian soldiers in the streets. As soon as the German cannons shooting sounds became clear, and the Russians began their withdrawal, all the residents, Jews and gentiles, began leaving town. Again, whoever has a horse and wagon is loading his belongings. My mother's uncle, Berl Elishkevich, is coming with a horse and wagon and suggests that we move with him to Olshani. I remember us loading the wagon and our ride to Olshani: The uncle, mother, father, me, my three sisters and my older brothers ,Yaacov-Hirsh and Leibl.
The Germans are located now in town. Vishnive became the battle front, and trenches are being dug across it. Shelters are being built, equipped with electricity, water, weapons, heating, refrigeration and medical equipment. German soldiers are fighting hand-to-hand battles against Russian soldiers.
We are wandering.
We are refugees
Berl (mother's uncle), Father, Mother, I, my two brothers and my three sisters, are sitting on the wagon, on the way to Olshani. It is cool. The month of Tishrei is almost over. We are on our way. Uncle Berl has a horse and wagon and he is inviting us to stay at his home. I am sitting on the wagon not worried at all. Someone else should worry. It is a bit chilly. It is drizzling. We are between Yom Kippur and Sucot. I hold my beloved sister Gitke's hand to feel some warmth. We are hungry, but Olshani is close. We'll be there very soon. I think I slept during most of the trip.I do not remember whether other wagons were going there. It makes sense to assume so. You have to understand that I was a little girl, the youngest in the family. I remember that contrary to everybody, I loved this travel. In my eyes it was like a trip, but an unhappy one, because my parents were sad and so were my brothers.
We arrived towards evening. In the evening it is dark. There is no electricity, therefore I think it was towards evening. Many German soldiers were outside. The family of uncle Berl received us for dinner. I remember aunt Rivka, Berl's wife, even offered us bread and tea. There were only two rooms in the uncle's house. We got one room and one bed. We spread blankets on the floor, and that is how we passed the night. Next morning I woke up in a house which is not my own. All of us are hungry. From now on we were hungry all the time. We prayed Shachrit and ate a thin cereal that Mother prepared. Food was difficult to get, even in the flourishing black market. If you got a piece of bread, you had to hide it well. Our situation is quite bad. The Germans rationed food. 200 grams bread per person. Can you be satiated with this? Some sold their last piece of bread in order to buy something else. When there was no bread we ate turnips. It was called "Brotzke". My uncle was given a nickname "Der Keisar". Why "Keisar"? because "Lebt Vi A Keisar" (lives like an emperor). The uncle ate better food than we did, and we could smell his meat cooking very often. Mother was almost always cooking without meat. The uncle used to make fun of her by whispering, whenever she would place the pot on the fire, "Fosene Babkes" (potatoes without oil).
ÉExcept the constant hunger which accompanied us, we were children. In the first morning, all kids went outside to play. German soldiers were in every corner. Olshani was the border and they had to guard it from the Russians. I paid a lot of attention to the special shape of the houses there. I remember the "Shtreiendike Dechalach" (straw roofs) and the enclosed porches. Each house had a wooden porch sticking out, enclosed by glass windows. In fact, as kids we had nothing to do, no studies and no other occupation. From day one I especially loved playing with the muddy soil. This mud was actually a special quality clay. I had a girlfriend with whom I built various sculptures.
Near Berl's house lived his daughter and her six children. She had three boys and three girls. Sometimes my sisters used to sleep there. When we arrived to Olshani, the daughter was in Vilna. At this hunger period, she used to go to Vilna to buy "Alte Zachen" (used clothing) and bring it back to Olshani, where it was in high demand. This meant that she had bread and that she could earn a living. There was a lot of tension in her home. Her husband was in America. It was common in that time. First the head of the family goes, finds a source of living, and then brings his family. However in the meantime, the war broke out. In the time we lived together she did not receive any letters from him.
Berl's daughter had a very handsome son, Chatzkale. Even the German soldiers liked him. What did they do? They sewed a small soldier uniform for him and even prepared a small rifle, all for photography. They used to take pictures with him, and mailed it to their families.
About the Vishnivean Refugees in Olshani
Many Vishnivean families arrived to Olshani. No family lived outdoors. It was cold, and everybody lived at their relatives. It was extremely crowded there. The large refugee families made it even harder on the locals who had large families of their ownÉ As I mentioned before, food was scarce. I remember Vishniveans who were actually starving. I can not forget a couple from Vishnive, going around with swollen legs, as a result of hunger and cold. They walked as if they were in a dream. They had nine kids that they could not take care of. I used to watch them with horror. On the other hand, another family from Vishnive brought their cow with them. They had milk every day. The father was a barber. He immediately opened a barber shop and began serving German officers and soldiers as well as local residents. This family, for example, could afford buying whatever was available in the black market, and avoided the great hunger suffered by many Visnivean and Olshanian families
I have Diphtheria
On a winter Friday, in early evening, I was left alone in the house. Father and mother were not there. They were looking for food. My sisters were in the house of the "Keisar" daughter. I was bored. What did I do? I went out barefoot and began dancing on the snow. What can I tell you? I got a high fever and "Klezmorim" began to play in my throat. Mother began running from doctor to doctor and from "Felsher" to "Felsher" (knows a little bit about medicine and about first aid). My brother, Leibl, who was on a Shabbat leave from his "Panni Battalion" (forced labor) joined mother's running around. My father did not go. He was always spoiled, he always did not feel well. How can I tell it to you, he "Gekrechtzet Di Gantze Tzeit" (was sighing all the time). Each doctor said that I have only 15 minutes to live. I remember I was searching for air and could not find any. They told us to go to the synagogue which became a hospital. A transport of wounded soldiers arrived there, and probably they have medicines against Diphtheria. When we arrived there, they accepted us immediately. Leibl knew German very well and knew how to talk with them. As soon as I got the shot I could breath again. I was instantly relieved. All the soldiers near our house knew about my problem. When we arrived home the soldiers began shouting, "Luft, luft, the girl needs luft (air)," and told mother to open the windows. Mother begged them not to do it, but they broke the windows, and we slept the whole night with snow, cold wind and broken windows, freezing, mother crying and my heart is with her. Next day the glass windows were repaired by glaziers.
The doctors told me to drink something sweet, jam or even sugar. But, as you can imagine, you could not get these items even with money. So I never got it.
Upon return to Vishnive, at the end of the war, they added to my name, which used to be "Dvoshe", the name Chaia, "Tzom Leben" (for life), and since then my name is Chaia Dvoshke.
The Adventures of Leibl and Yaacov-Hirsh When We Were in Olshani
When we arrived to Olshani, Yaacov-Hirsh and Leibl departed from the parents and the sisters. Yaacov-Hirsh, about 22, is going to Vilna, which is under German occupation. He is working as the secretary of the "Tarbut" Hebrew Jewish Secondary School, named after Epstein. Epstein was a physician who established the school. After Dr. Epstein's death, the school had budget difficulties.
At that time, the German are advertising on large bulletin boards all over Vilna, that they have interesting, well paying jobs for available intellectuals. Yaacov-Hirsh goes there for an interview and shows his passport. When they see that he is a "Russian Soldier", they immediately confiscate his clothing and watch, and take him as a POW. He is being sent to Elsas-Lothringia (in Germany, near the French border) to work in the mines. Later he worked in an oil factory, and finally in the kitchen.
My brother described with disappointment, with pain, and one can say, even with hatred, the attitude of the German Jews, who refused to sell food to the Jewish POW's, for the "Bones" (coupons) they got from the German military. They considered themselves as Germans of Moses' religion, and totally ignored the East-European Jews, because they were different Jews. He returned home in 1920
He was 17 during the war, not yet at the age of mandatory draft. He went from Olshani to Oshmene, where we had relatives of my father's side. Oshmene, too, was under German occupation. The Germans captured him and put him in "Panni Battalion" as they did to everybody else. He suffered hunger, hard labor, and beatings for two years, till he succeeded in getting released.
I remember that one day, suddenly, in Olshani, there was big news. They stopped shooting. There was a cease fire. Everybody thought the war was over. People began returning to their homes in Olshani, if they had their homes still standing, of course. There was a festive feeling that soon we would return to our home in Vishnive. I recall people dancing in the streets. An old gentile man, called Barazhvich, dancing with a stick and an attached bell. Many people were standing around including my sister Gitke and I. We were tightly attached. Suddendly a "Sheigetz" arrived and twisted my head. I was very scared, I cried a bit, but we continued watching the dancing.
Reality was different.
We are a Nuisance
What I have to tell is that with time passing, the Vishniveans, my family included, turned out to be a serious nuisance and a threat to the Olshanians. The Olshani Jews began to "Sing" that they do not want the refugees anymore because they made their homes crowded and dirty. They complained to the Jewish Militia (which was link between the Jewish population and the German authorithies). They worried about losing their homes and jobs. Uncle Berl, his wife Rivka, and their families were tired of the "mission" they took upon themselves. On one sunny day, Chaim the "Politzeman" (Policeman) arrived with a horse and wagon. We tied our "Peklachs" (bundles) with despair and with anger about our uncle's family, and we moved to Karbi, a deserted gentile village, whose residents fled to Russia at the beginning of the war. The village location was 2 km from Olshani. We were moving together with another large family, the family of Meishke der Klimeier. I do not remember other families. We did not feel good in the village. Mother did not want to be there and did not want the insult. The other Vishnivean families did not want to be there either. Everybody began running towards the border between Vishnive and Olshani - towards home. All said they were ready to pay as much as needed for wagons to be taken there. There was a feeling that if we applied pressure, we would be transferred back to Vishnive.
After a short time, we re-tied our "Peklachs" and returned to Olshani, where we rented a small room. I remember the "Seder" that Father and the homeowner conducted, the warm atmosphere, inspite of the hard "Matzas" and the small amount of food. I will never forget the hard crust of bread the homeowner used to leave for me on the table, knowing that I am hungry. He used to leave the table pretending not to notice.
Good Bye Olshani
The cease fire lasted only a short time. As soon as the first cannon began shooting, the war resumed. This was the end of all our dreams of returning home. A few Vishnivean families who could afford bribing the Germans and the Olshanian Jews, stayed in Olshani for the entire war. After Passover (1916), Chaim the "Politzman" arrived with a wagon and an old horse (young horses were sent to the war), helped us load all of our belongings, and the long journey of the Vishnivean refugees to the Grodno District had begun.
To be continued:
The story of Chaya Rogovin | The shtetl is burning- World War I | We are refugees in Olshany | Laible and Yaacov | Stories from Belryus,Cease Fire in Olshan