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The Destruction of Volozhyn

By Mendel Volkovitsh, Nataniya

English in Volozhin Yizkor Book (page 30 from left side)

Translated by the Editorial team from Hebrew (Yizkor Book page 452)


The Germans entered Volozhyn on the month Tammuz 1st, in the Jewish year of 5701 (July 25th 1941), three days after crossing the Soviet borders. Before their entry the city was constantly bombed by artillery and by air force. Arriving in town they committed a "small-scale" massacre of Jews. The nazi invaders murdered Alter Berman, Pessah Mazeh, Eliyahu Perski and Alter Shimshelevitsh.

Two weeks later the Gestapo ordered us to elect a Jewish council, called Youdenrat. It was composed of twelve members and headed by Jacob Garber. The Youdenrats’ objective from the Germans point of view was to carry out the Gestapo orders, i.e. to conscript people to work and to supply money, jewelry, furs and cloth to the authorities.

Te Gentiles welcomed the Germans and at once agreed to collaborate with them. The attorney, Stanislav Tourski, the well-known Endek (member of the Polish most anti-Semitic National Democrats’ party) returned to Volozhyn from the Kartuz-Bereza prison. He acted as if is time had at last arrived. He assembled all the local known Jew-haters, the barber Baranski and others. They began to conduct an evil anti-Jewish propaganda. He was soon appointed as the town Mayor. On his second day in office Tourski ordered to send to prison a group of Jews. Among them were: the popular physician Avrom Tsart with his daughter Nehama, Hayim Tzirulnik, Shymon Lavit, Lippa Tzimerman and Hassia Leah Perski. The next day the entire group was executed. The local police was composed of the most worthless scoundrels of the neighboring villages. They acted under the SS officers’ orders. The policemen would attack the town Jews and beat them mercilessly sporadically. The policeman Minkovitsh caught Freidel Rosen, broke her arms and afterwards shot her to death. Rosa Berman and Shahna Paretski were beaten savagely and later killed.

In the month of Av (August 1941) The Germans established a Ghetto. It was located between the Curved Street (Krumme Gass), Dubinski Street, Minsk Street and the Volozhynka River. Around 3500 people were crowded in a few dozens houses. There were all of the Volozhyn Jews, but also Jews from the vicinity, refugees from Vishnevo, Olshan and Oshmiana.

We were conducted in units to perform tasks as forced labor; Streets cleaning, pits digging and snow sweeping in winter. I worked with a group of eighty Jews in Yatskovo forest, near Belokorets. Our lodgment during this task was in one miserable cabin in which we all crowded together. We were miserably constricted and emaciated, broken in spirit and extremely depressed. Everything we experienced saddened us and lessens our fighting spirits. Spirits that were needed to be firm in order to survive. We did not receive any food. In exchange for the few belongings we possessed the peasants gave us some bread.

While working on the Road to Minsk we witnessed dreadful events. We witnessed German soldiers horribly mistreating thousands of Soviet war-prisoners. The torturers made them sing the "Katiusha" song while they were beaten to death. The prisoners were naked and starving. The Germans were sitting on carts full of grass and spring onions. From time to time they flung some grass to the hungry prisoners as though they were animals. The hundreds of unfortunate famished men fell upon it and fought each other to reach each piece of grass so they could eat it.

On Sabbat we were permitted to go home. Before entering the ghetto we were carefully searched and tortured was the man who was found with a piece of bread or a bottle of milk. He would be beaten ruthlessly and the food would be confiscated. Sometimes gentiles would have pity for the imprisoned Jews. They would approach the fence with a loaf of bread or a bottle of milk. Such merciful actions would be severely punished by the police when caught. The good person would be savagely beaten. Some of these good-hearted people paid for their compassionate deeds with their life. Koppel Rogovin exchanged a can of kerosene for a piece of food. The peasant denounced him to the Germans. Rogovin was told of it. He ran away from the ghetto to Yatskevo forest, where we have been at forced work. The guards lined up the entire group. Koppel was found and taken out of the line. The murderers beat him cruelly; Koppel begged them to kill him. But having the pleasure to witness a suffering Jew, the brutes refused to grant his wish at that moment. They put him on a cart and almost dead he was brought to the "priest’s hill". Here they finally killed him.

On 7th Heshvan 5702, October 28th 1941, the evil officer Moka from the Gestapo entered the Ghetto and demanded that we would immediately supply a large amount of boot-soles. They gave him the soles and we all assumed that our duty was accomplished. But he returned shortly after accompanied by several SS men. He summoned the Jews for a meeting. The Youdenrat members hurried to pass the rulers’ order. Not everybody responded. My little daughter Shulamit begged: Daddy, don’t go to the meeting". The child’s’ heart forewarned her. I obeyed her and did not go.

Moka imprisoned a large number of Jews in the cinema hall. From there he took them out in groups of ten to the neighboring sport stadium an executed them. In this action more than 200 people were murdered, including Jacob Garber the Volozhin Youdenrat head.

Jacob Finger, Tzapin and Zahariya Beyklin were successful in their escape from the murderers. They returned to the Ghetto and told us about the slaughter they witnessed. Immediately after the shooting Belorussian policemen and neighboring peasants arrived, they stripped the clothes from the dead bodies, took away any rings and jewels and pulled out from the victims’ mouths their golden teeth. Than a group of Jews was brought to burry the bodies.

The life in the Ghetto became harder and harder. Once SS men intruded on the house that was served for praying. They took a Torah Scroll, spread it out on the floor, made several dozens of Jews lie down on the sheets and killed them.

The 23rd Iyar 5702 (10th may 1942) marked the day of the Volozhyn Community destruction. A few days’ earlier three bodies of German soldiers were found in the area between Volozhin and Zabrezhe. Shortly after Gestapo men arrived from Vileyka and examined several places in town. Eventually they selected a suitable site for the big massacre.

I heard from a reliable source about the plans for a massacre. My daughter was ill with high temperature. I hurried to summon Dr Faminski a man who was friendly with the Jews. While checking my daughter he told me that the day of the Volozhin Jews extermination is shortly approaching. The Doctor used to go freely amongst the Gestapo heads and knew their plans. His information was reliable.

Soon after hearing the Doctors’ warning I went to sleep. A nightmare woke me up. In my dream I saw the murderers surrounding the Ghetto. They entered our house and killed everybody. Anxious by the dream I told its content to Rachel Leveiner, my brothers’ sister in law. She listened but did not seem to be concern. She went out to the courtyard to bring something. She returned hastily, her face was as red as a fire. Trembling she screamed out: "There’s something terrible happening all around us — They are banging, yelling and shooting". I looked outside through the window and I saw the murderers driving the Jews out of their dwellings. As they now were approaching our house I yelled to Malka (my first wife): "Let’s take our sick child and run away". She did not obey me and remained standing in one spot. She said that she refuse to move, she did not believe she’d find a place to escape the rapidly approaching murderess. When I saw the SS mounting our stairs, I called my father in law Sana (Nathaniel) Lavit with my brother in law Leyba. Together we slipped out through the back door into the barn and climbed up into the attic.

As we later found out at 5 a.m. in the morning of May 10th 1942, SS men; Polish and Belorussian policemen surrounded the Ghetto. The first to be killed were Yohanan Klein and Isaak Naroshvitsh, the two Jewish policemen that guarded the Ghetto entrance. They persistently shot at every Jew they encountered on their way. Many Jews fell dead on the spot. They drew the rest of the people they found while searching all the Jewish homes into the smith shop, which the Soviets built on Mostsitski Street near the aroptsu-synagogue. They were enclosed in that building for hours. Outside they placed chairs and a table set out with food, vodka and other liquor. Around the table sat policemen and SS men, they seemed to be in bright and cheerful mood. They were holding guns and machineguns. Between the drinks they would shot at the building direction trying to silence the children who were weeping and the adults who were screaming.

Among the enclosed Jews was Rabbi Reuven Hadash, the Rabbi from Olshan. He called the Jews not to go like sheep’s to slaughter. He told them to destroy the ovens, to take bricks, stones and iron bars, to break down the door and to attack the murderers. However Rabbi Israel Lunin opposed the idea saying that: "Even when a sharp sword is pressed against one’s throat one shouldn’t break off the hope for mercy from god".

The Gendarmerie chief called Aron Kamienietski, a Youdenrat member, to polish his boots. As Kamienietski bent down the chief shot him. As the imprisoned Jews saw the cold blooded murder a commotion began. They started breaking out of the building through the roof. The murderers shot at them in full force, still a few continued running out and succeeded to escape. Among them were Motl Mlot and Leyzer Meltzer.

On that dreadfully hot day they kept the rest of the people crowded together from five in the morning until five in the afternoon. Then the murderers lead them out in groups; they separated children, men and women. Some elderly Jews made their last walk enwrapped in prayer shawls and adorned by holy phylacteries. The Jews were marched purposely through the gentiles’ streets in order to allow their neighbors the enjoyment of seeing the Jewish mortal descend. Young local men and women came out into the streets, organ music was played, and the crowd was dancing and singing joyful songs. They gathered around, they teased and mocked the procession of Jews taken to their death.

The Jews were put into Bulava’s house next to the eastern fence of the ancient Jewish graveyard. Here the assassins killed them with automatic weapons. After the slaughter they set the house on fire. The Volozhin Jews went up to heaven in flames. On that day many other Jews were killed, being shot in attics, cellars and other hiding places they found. When these corpses were taken to burial into common graves, the local gentiles flung on the dead human bodies dead cats, dead dogs and all kinds of rubbish.

After the slaughter the gentiles entered the Ghetto with horses and carts. They looted whatever they could. A Goyish local woman raised her arms high in the air and shouted joyously "Father in heaven, I thank you for having purified us from the Jewish filth!" It should be said that her husband was an upright, decent man. He treated us kindly. Our bitter fate grieved him enormously and broke his heart.

With the sun setting we left our refuge inside the barn and crept towards our house. The doors were wide open. "Is there anybody here?" we asked in a whisper and we heard a whisper answering: "I am here". It was my brother in law Hershl Perski, afterwards we heard calls from Hershl and Tziviya Lunin. Under the cover of darkness we all set out to the forest. With Sana Lavit, Hersh Rogovin, my brother in law, Leybe Lavit , we reached the Volozhin forest. In a marshy place we found another group of Jews who escaped. Weary and hungry we asked one another where we could find help…..

We greatly suffered from hunger and thirst. We decided to look for food and water. We were firmly resolved to defend ourselves if we would be attacked. We set out wearing peasant clothes. We crossed the Berezina River; we met a peasant we knew and entered his house. He gave us bread, salt and cheese. His wife warned us of policemen searching for Jews in the woods. They found and killed several Jews they day before she said.

We stayed in that village for fourteen days. When all the food was finished, Sane Lavit told us that we had no choice; we must go back to Volozhin. It was dangerous. Police and SS men guarded the paths and roads. In spite of it we succeeded to reach the town, where we found Motl Haiklin. To my question about my family and survivors, he told me that peasants had seen my brother Minia (Samuel) in Zabrezhe. I went there and found him in a peasant’s house. His leg was swollen. In spite of it he accompanied me and we reached Volozhyn together. (To be continued).