by Meir Shamir (Shmerkovitsh)
Translated by Emma Karabelnik
Translated by Emma Karabelnik
September 1939. Jews, as they usually do at the outset of a war between Gentiles, stood aside as if it didn't concern them, but the fear was showing. Everyone was in a hurry, everyone was a politician conducting discussions on state matters and strategies, guessing outcomes, gathering around public radio, and listening nervously to the surprising news and the course of fighting on the front. Tension was rising and the nervousness even more so. We were totally aware of what awaited us; we knew exactly what the arrival of Hitler would mean for us.
Meanwhile, general mobilization began: all sorts of soldiers were recruited. When it was my turn to be recruited, I decided to go back home to Voronova where I had left behind my parents and younger brother. I left Lida where I was working as an electrician and went back home. I stayed there for several days and then my turn came to report in Sokolka. We, the Jews, were eager to enlist and fight against Germans. I wanted to fight as soon as possible, but the road to Sokolka was already blocked. The railway was dysfunctional. I had to look for alternative ways to get to Vilne or Lida, and from there to my recruitment point.
In the evening an occasional train would pass and we [managed to] leave. Military life started there [on the train]. We lay on benches. At every station we received coffee and rolls from the Red Cross who welcomed the new recruits. The train proceeded slowly and with caution. From time to time when [passing] open fields with no hiding places we were attacked by German bombers throwing bombs and shells upon us. The number of victims was growing. One day in Grodno we were bombed by several formations of enemy planes and many were killed before we could jump out to find shelter. We lost faith that any of us would survive. There was no one to protect us. The whole anti-aircraft defense consisted of one machine gun hidden behind a tree at the station. That machine gun used to get stuck from time to time: before it was kind enough to shoot, enemy planes did what they wanted to us.
The railway station was destroyed almost to the ground and the train overturned. A small number of people managed to get out, but most were killed or wounded. A heavy train door torn from its hinges wounded my right leg. Only after the attack ended were we able to take care of the wounded and pull out the trapped from under the wagons.
At first I was unable to move my leg and I lay on the ground. Two people approached me with a stretcher, but I refused to be carried. I tried to stand up by myself. After I regained [some strength] and stood up, I saw a horrible site that didn't leave me until long after.
Near a pile of ruins there was a smashed woman with her child beside her, a two year old. For me it was the beginning of war and its [horrible] views. On many subsequent occasions my eyes saw human victims, the dead and the wounded, ripped and smashed, but again and again the site of this innocent woman with her little baby came back to me: unnecessary victims of a cruel war.
We couldn't continue until we had repaired the rails. We moved on after two days knowing for sure that the villain would return and repeat a blood bath.
Somehow we managed to get to Sokolka at three, after midnight. We were immediately enlisted and were taken to a mountain nearby. We stretched on the ground, took some imaginary cover, and fell into a deep sleep.
As sunrise we were awakened by loud sirens. Soon we saw the formations and the falling bombs exploding everywhere: Sokolka was under an air attack. For two days we walked around in civilian clothing. On the third day we got uniforms. We were divided into groups of up to 12, mostly Poles, according to our military professions. In the whole squad only two of us were Jews, the rest Poles from Warsaw and Poznan. We stayed in town as a guarding squadron. We were happy about it because the rumors from the frontline were not reassuring. The steady flow of wounded soldiers was increasing. Our company was ordered to defend the railway lines and station. We began digging trenches and prepared to fight the enemy.
Although we at the frontline suffered bitter losses every day, the radio transmitted news of the successes and victories of the Polish Army, in order to cheer up the fighters. It must be noted that we didn't lack courage. During each air attack we jumped into nearby gardens to appear to be picking fruit. But it didn't last for long. The Germans discovered us despite our disguise and conducted air raids on us from time to time. On one occasion, six formations appeared [in the sky]. The place turned into hell. The earth and the sky became one, heavy with grim smoke. When the attack stopped and all the dust sank, the earth and the sky were separated again. We found our friends scattered all around, crushed and laying in their own blood.
This went on for several days. We were ordered to prepare to move [retreat]. We knew the situation was getting worse. We knew we couldn't outlast them and that the end was coming near. There wasn't a single Polish plane on site. That was surprising and shocking. On one occasion, after an attack, one Polish airplane appeared in the sky for the first time. It flew low above our heads, looking miserable and pathetic like someone avoiding enemy airplanes.
We moved early in the evening. On the way we argued about the situation. The darkness became thicker and thicker. From time to time the sky would lighten up with air attacks, but that made our way seem even darker. It was more difficult to find our way through the darkness that fell after the lights of an air attack dazzled our eyes. We spent the night in the forest. We fell into a deep sleep.
When the morning came there were several scouts in the sky. After they disappeared, another plane appeared and someone from our group took a shot. The plane disappeared, but soon after a lot of bombers appeared and turned the forest into a mess. More than half of our people were dead or wounded. When the troops gathered together we discovered that out of 80 soldiers barely 25 to 30 survived. We knew that it had been treason: the shot wasn't fired by accident. There are traitors among us.
At night we were ordered to move on. Nobody knew yet where we are going. We traveled through the night packed together with our dead and wounded friends, while their final moans tore out our hearts. In the morning we recognized our destination. We were approaching Vilne. We didn't talk. Everyone knew what was going to happen. The mood was total depression. None of us could forget that treacherous shot in the forest, and it depressed us more and more. We realized that the war wouldn't last for long. The train stopped at the outskirts of Vilne and we soldiers were given the opportunity to wash and clean up the blood on our faces. They wanted us to look less depressing so that our entrance into town would not cause embarrassment or defeat.
In the train station a guard was put around us so that no one could get near us and see how miserable we looked. We found out later that local residents knew nothing about the real situation. They had heard from the radio only about victories and conquests
Meanwhile, the dead were buried, the wounded hospitalized, and the few remaining soldiers reorganized. There were very few of us left. To those few they wanted to add some reservists and send us all to the frontline. When we were ready to leave, news arrived that Hitler was approaching Vilne, and we were left to defend it. The Germans were supposed to arrive to Vilne from Klaipeda (Memel). That's why we didn't go to the front, and survived. We built the defense line, dug trenches, and established communication. I was appointed a sergeant. In my regiment there were White Russians [Belarusians]. I learned the differences favoring them when compared to treacherous Poles.
We stayed at the same spot for a week, and then we were astonished with news that the Russians were coming, crossing the Polish border in order to stop the Germans and prevent the occupation of all of Poland.
That was in November 1939. This information brought excitement to many of us, especially the Jews. It was [because of] the long history with the Poles who had caused a lot of suffering for the Jews. After the pogroms and harassments, the false arrests and heavy taxes, we finally took a breath of relief. [Not only us], but the Poles among us and the Belarusians from the worker class were also happy with the approach of the Communists. Then one day came the specific information that on the next day at 12 midnight the Russians would enter Vilne. This news bothered me because there were rumors that the Poles in town were preparing to resist the Russians. We [the Jews] and the Belarusians decided to run away. I put my trust in them and together we planned our desertion. The thought of continuing to serve in the treacherous anti-Semitic Polish Army frightened me. We didn't want to fight with them at the frontline.
That's how I imagined the Soviet regime - the savior of Polish Jews. I believed that this way we'd reach equality and eliminate anti-Semitism. In my head I still heard the voice of Moscow radio [speaking about the] brotherhood of nations and the equality to the working man. I remembered [stories] from the radio of rich Jewish cultural activity, the concerts, the lectures, and this made me enthusiastic to meet the Soviets-- especially now, after the indescribable suffering, and the disorientation of the Polish authorities and commanders in battle, and the fear of falling into Nazi hands. The Soviet Army seemed like a miracle from heaven and our chance for salvation. Some soldiers danced for joy when discussing the politics. The Polish officers became angry. They were not pleased to see this. Probably resulting from the two occupations, they preferred the German, anti-Soviet, and anti-Semitic regime. I felt this in all of their behaviors so I decided it was time to act. Time was pressuring. I left a Belarusian soldier in my place and went away. I told him I was going to check the rumors and instructed him on what to do and say when the night control arrived.
A soldier who had relatives in town came with me. It was hard to sneak out of the trenches. Every movement had to be authorized and there were inspections everywhere, but our great excitement gave us great strength and we managed to overcome all obstacles. Under the cloak of darkness and the cover of bombings we managed to sneak away, pass unnoticed the bridge guards, and make it to town. I visited someone I knew and he confirmed the rumor that the Russians are arriving that night.
I stayed overnight at his [place]. He promised to organize civilian clothes for me so that I'd be able to walk around the town and not be arrested as a foreign soldier. My friends and I decided that if the Russians did not come during the night, we'd have no choice but to return to our base. He was supposed to wake me up.
I didn't shut my eyes the whole night in fear of being betrayed by my substitute. I didn't want to be court-martialed by the Polish anti-Semites on the verge of my salvation, only a moment before the expected final fall of their regime.
The Russians didn't arrive. The night ended and everything was quiet. The citys residents were enclosed in their homes. All the doors and windows were shut, and not one living soul was seen in the streets. I dressed up quickly while it was still dark and ran back to my regiment.
In my heart I regretted the whole night operation. My disappointment was great; again the illusion had blown up. Probably it was another of the false rumors spread during wars, with purposes known only to those who spread them.
In my regiment everything was quiet. The soldiers surrounded me, eager to hear everything I had to tell. In particular, they wanted to know how the Russian occupation would occur, if it would occur. Our hearts pounded with fear that the Russians would not come at all. Desperation was everywhere.
Meanwhile, the days went by and with them various rumors. Some said that the Poles and the Russians had come to an agreement, and that the Russians would not occupy Poland. But in the surrounding fields, sounds and echoes of shots and explosions could be heard.
In the afternoon I sent a soldier to the main barracks to bring food and mostly to bring new information.
At 2pm he came back running, without food, and said that in the main barracks there was turmoil and panic. The officers were packing their belongings, burning everything, and covering their footsteps. I decided to go to the barracks myself and check if this was true.
He was right and accurate. The officers ran around angrily and desperately. Turmoil and panic were everywhere. Piles of burnt papers, notebooks, and certificates were scattered all around. It was crystal clear to me that our saviors were on their way and maybe even at the outskirts of town. I decided to leave the base and never come back. This time I was sure that I would not return. When it became dark I started making my way to the city. I knew that from now on my place would be between friends and relatives, among those craving for change, and awaiting salvation like me. This time there was no need to fear control-points and guards. They also ran around and had deserted.
When I approached the green bridge I saw a strange sight: women and soldiers and ordinary civilians hugging and kissing in great joy. I didn't know yet what had happened. I stopped people and asked them about the big celebration. Someone who saw me wearing Polish uniform wanted to cheer me up and told me the whole story. Apparently it had been announced on the radio that Hitler was dead and that the Russians were not coming to Vilne, and that the Poles had come to an agreement with the Russians to withdraw to previous borders.
You have to realize he explained to me - they would shoot us Poles to the last one.
I was naïve and confused, and my heart started beating hard. I couldn't decide: whether to leave or not? To return or no to return? I began slowly to make my way back. Heat and cold attacked me, each in its turn, but I couldn't make myself go back to the military base. Finally, I reached a bridge and heard again the news that the Pole told me. So I continued on my way-- to the base of all places.
On my way I met terrified people on the run. The turmoil and confusion were immense, and my doubts grew even more.
Three times I re-crossed the bridge back and forth, and on the fourth time I decided to go back to town.
I told myself that it was only to check out the rumors with my friends. I'd find out everything from them. I continued to walk silently. Nobody noticed me. The night became darker with every minute.
I went on, and there I was in Zawolna Street. I saw a line of automobiles packed with women and small children. These were families of high rank, government servants, attempting to escape the Soviet regime and its expected cruelty against the Poles. This time they looked miserable and frightened. The heavy rain, the switched-off street lamps, and the solitude added to their misery. I waited impatiently for the cars to leave and then quickly crossed the street. I came to my friends' house, knocked on the door, but nobody replied. Everything was sealed and locked; nobody dared to approach the door.
I stood all alone in the night. Around me were only sounds of slamming doors. I had no desire to stay outside in the rainy night. I went to an inn owned by Itzek in Klein-Stephan-Street. My parents used to stay at this inn when they traveled to Vilne. Nobody replied to my knocking, but I knew that they were home. So I continued to knock until I heard a voice from inside:
Who's there?I asked for someone from Itzek's [family] to come to the gate because I was an acquaintance. One of them came to the gate and recognized me. He had seen me here before, when I had come as a soldier to pick up packages sent from home.
The heavy gate opened. They had built barricades and they had to be dismantled.
When I entered the yard I saw a lot of people gathered together. They all surrounded me. Everybody wanted to hear from someone who had been outside. They took me to a big cellar. I saw lots of mothers with babies, some seated, and some lying on the floor. The men were outside with clubs, for protection. The atmosphere was full of fear and tribulation. Jewish Vilne was getting prepared for horrible attacks by the Jew-hating Poles. They accepted the rumor that Hitler was dead, and the Soviets were not coming etc., but they also saw it is a huge disaster, as unexpected trouble.
Later we found out that the Mayor who was sympathetic to Jews had spread this news deliberately to prevent a last-minute pogrom before Hitler or the Soviets entered the town.
At 7 we heard whistling bullets close to us and clear sounds of shootings. The Soviets lit up the town with huge spotlights, to force the Polish soldiers surrender before they could hide. They knew that the [Polish] army had decided to actively resist the entrance of Soviets. After the bullets came shells and bomb explosions. Vilne looked to be in shock and collapsing.
The assemblage left the yard and went down to the cellar. Everyone looked for a shelter and clung to Mother Earth for protection. I was used to the sounds of war and explosions so I lay on the ground and fell sound asleep.
At 12 everything went quiet. From time to time the rattling motor of a tank, or the sound of chains, could be heard from afar. I woke up and stood up and couldn't see anyone around me. Even those who had slept beside me weren't there anymore. I went to the room where the women were gathered and asked where the men were. My uniform scared them and my question confused them much. They started screaming. Then the men appeared and calmed them down. The situation was unclear. Were the Soviets here? Nobody had seen them yet.
I asked the inn workers to lend me civilian clothing. We hid my military uniform in the attic. I went outside. Jewish men were standing in groups, discussing the politics. Some assumed that the Russians had won. Others thought that they hadn't. In any case it was clear that the battle was ended. Nobody dared to get out into the street. The gate was still blocked and sealed. From the street one could hear the sound of approaching tanks. I found the courage to climb the stairs and look outside. It was still dark and it was hard to see what was going on. The window was broken so I stretched my head out and suddenly saw a person with something white on his back. I followed him with my eyes and saw more and more such images with white backs. Meanwhile as it became lighter I could see that these were Polish soldiers looking for shelter, from their fear. They are many, and the things on their backs were nothing more than their white army packs, which they had brought from their homes. I knew that they were done for. I knew the Soviets were coming in with zero resistance from our "heroes".
I climbed down and told the people what I had seen. We then heard noises outside the gate and people talking. We opened the gate slowly and went outside. The street was empty. From afar one could hear clear sound of the tanks. We ran towards the noise. Something told us those were Soviet tanks. A row of caterpillars appeared before our eyes, a heavy tank passed by and the earth was shaking under it, a second tank, and then a third. The third tank opened its hatch and the dusty head of a soldier appeared. He lifted his hand to us and said in pure Yiddish:
Jews don't be afraid, we are with you!
His words were like the password to salvation, like a magic word which had dispelled all doubts. We all were excited. In that moment a heavy stone had dropped from our hearts and [we felt] great relief.
Meanwhile the number of tanks was growing. They drove around along the streets, mounted kids on the turrets, and spread the spirit of liberty and comradeship. This tiny act filled our hearts with hope and relief.
And I looked for a way to get back home to Voronova.
I found my cousin from Stephan Street; he loaned me his bicycle, so I could get to my family. I talked to another guy and we set out together, but at the last moment he changed his mind. He said they were catching people who wandered on the roads and were sending them to Russia as POWs. I couldn't stop myself. I missed home so much that I couldn't wait any longer
I mounted the bike and drove home.
Outside the town I was arrested by a Russian patrol. There were many like me in custody. We were inspected, searched for weapons, asked about nationality, and then released. They treated the Jews with trust, unlike the Poles, and they were suspicious towards Poles.
On my way home I passed familiar soldiers dragging themselves home with their boots over the shoulders. After two and one half hours I arrived home to Voronova.
Our house was locked. Nobody was there. I waited for my parents. I stood impatiently leaning on a wall awaiting them. I was surrounded by a crowd who wanted to enquire about their sons, brothers, and relatives. Many of these didn't live to come back to their families, and there memory was lost forever.
On one occasion there was a need to install electricity in an estate which had been turned into a school, but there were no copper wires available. It was known that in Vilne one could find wires like this-- not legally, with no receipts and no documents. I was appointed to go to Vilne to obtain the wires. I suggested to the accountant that he write an "act" [a protocol] for each transaction and thus we wouldn't have to submit orders, accounts, or receipts. He understood and wrote a [general] permit with which I succeeded in obtaining all that was needed, with a friend's help, and for a very cheap price. When I came back to the office and reported the details of the purchase, then suddenly he started with the game of checking the bills etc. I reminded him that he had written an "act" to avoid invoices and that I had acted under such an understanding, but it didn't help. He demanded that I submit invoices signed by me: it was the manager's orders
I realized what was behind his words so I piled on all the accusations he deserved. The office was full of people, but I couldn't control myself. I mentioned every sin of his known to me until he got angry and threatened to go to the police
A week went by and Levinov kept on demanding. Meanwhile, the police gathered more evidence against me. One morning I was riding my bike on my way to work when I was met by the politruk of the police, one of my first acquaintances, who was still there since the change of regimes. We spoke in detail about my conflict with Levinov and I asked him what they were cooking up for me at the police. In the course of our conversation, which started in a friendly way, I felt that he had turned on me, and then he invited me to come with him to the police station. I knew it was an ambush and that I needed to be careful
At the police station I went through a long and harsh interrogation. I told the whole truth-- which didn't serve their intentions. I was released. I rode to work but was stopped on the way and taken back to the police. I was ordered to sit near the officer on duty and not to talk to anyone. My brother-in-law, who came to check on me, was also arrested. Meanwhile the chief of police sent policemen to my home. All the equipment that I kept at my home for "black-market" jobs was taken as evidence. Only then was I officially arrested. The elation felt by my boss and the chief of police, my greatest enemies, was huge. My brother-in-law was released, but his bicycle was confiscated. He was still a boy. He cried bitterly because of his bike so they decided to give it up and let him go
I was taken to prison with a convoy.
This was a new and sad chapter in my life. I spent nights sleeping on the floor. Food was brought to me from home, but no family members were allowed to see me. I looked out of a small window. I saw my wife leaning on an electric poll and crying. This clarified for me how the new regime could turn from white to black in a moment, how in one night a working and useful citizen could be turned into a convict, any connection with him forbidden
The vengefulness didn't calm down until I was moved to Lida prison. Later I found out that is had been the Mayor who demanded my release
On the morning of the third day in prison I was taken out together with 15 prisoners. We stood awaiting a vehicle that would take us to Lida. Town people gathered around us. Everyone expressed their sympathy to me, a son of this town. Some gave me cigarettes, some gave food or sweets.
In Lida we were conveyed with our hands cuffed behind our backs, like the worst criminals. The residents looked at us in the same manner. I was praying in my heart not to come across someone I knew
At the prison entrance the heavy gate closed behind us and we were ordered to stand against the wall, our hands at the back, and not to look back. We were standing like people who stand before firing squad. Shortly we were called for an inspection one by one. At my [inspection] they even tore up my cigarettes. In the evening I was put in a tiny cell with a steel door and concrete floor. I was put in solitary confinement. I was told that it was temporary until they could find a proper cell for me. When it became dark my heart was heavy and depressed. I felt as if everyone had forgotten me
I spent the night in solitary without sleep, standing on my feet. In the morning, when I was taken from there, I couldn't move my legs and the light bothered my eyes. They gave me back my stuff. The tobacco and the torn cigarettes were mixed in the food. I was given a blanket and taken to my cell as promised
When I went in [to the cell] I was cut off and locked-in, with real prisoners surrounding me. They asked me a lot of questions. I didn't reply. Then I was approached by several Jews. They were from Ivye. They explained to me who all the prisoners were and how I should conduct myself. In our cell there were different people from different nationalities associated with different crimes in different states. Some were accused and under investigation, some convicted. Some were soldiers, some officers, and some were criminals serving long terms for heavy crimes. The latter were more interested in my belongings than in me. I explained to them that if anyone touched my things I'd reward him appropriately. They flinched and treated me with respect. I shared about 100 cigarettes with them and our relationship became better. They all invited me to take a place near them. Three of the old-timers were sleeping near the windows, enjoying the fresh air, while the newcomers suffered from the heat and the stench. We were 40 people in the cell. Our toilet was a common bucket- one for all equally- that spread the stench for all equally. Except for those three, all the rest slept on the floor. After a week one of them left and I was given the bunk near the window. My two neighbors, one a Pole and the other a Russian, befriended with me and I shared my food and smokes with them
From time to time my friends were taken away for photos and fingerprints. I was impatient to be called because I wanted to know what was in store for me. I already knew the section of law. It was Section 55. I saw that when my fingerprints were taken during arrest. My friends, who knew the law perfectly, told me that I was in for speculation [i.e., profiteering]: punishment 5 to 10 years.
When the day of my interrogation came, I wasn't taken to the scene of the crime. My manager had probably arranged for my interrogators to come to where I was imprisoned. My heart trembled when I was told about the interrogation. Finally, for the first time in my life I was going to be interrogated. My cellmates told me a lot about the process. They said that they would not be picky about using means of pressure and wouldnt hesitate to use them. I gathered all my courage and strength and decided to hold on, not to break down, and not to admit to all their accusations
My interrogator was totally unknown to me. He welcomed me with courtesy and offered me a seat. There were just the two of us in the room. He asked me various questions and asked me to tell him my story. I told him the full history of my relationship with Levinov and all that had happened between me and the others. When he repeated the same questions, I kept silent. That made him angry. He pressed me in different ways to tell him where I had bought the wires, promising to release me [if I would tell him]. He appealed to my conscience and to my responsibilities towards my family. Nothing worked
I was returned to my cell late that night. My cellmates waited impatiently. I fell asleep and had nightmares of the previous day. When I awoke I foresaw that more nightmares would occur on the following day. Several such days full of anxiety and nervousness passed
One day, new prisoners were brought to our cell, and we learned from them that there was talk about a war between Russia and Germany. I didn't believe this: I was too deep inside my own nightmare
On Friday night the prison guard came in suddenly and covered the windows with cloth so as to shut out electric light from the street
We understood [why]. Nobody shut their eyes that night. At dawn we heard the noise of flying airplanes. We were not taken for our usual 15 minutes to the toilets. The door remained locked. Nobody came to open it. We began to communicate with other prisoners by clapping on walls. Slowly the uncertainty turned into fear: maybe the regime was going to kill us all inside these walls. At the same time we heard terrible screams coming from the minors' cell:
God, people, help! Help!When people outside heard the children screaming they started to break open the prison gates. Somebody squeezed his head through the bars and shouted:
The stork is not on the roof.In prison language it meant that there were no more guards in the watch towers. Everybody started clapping on the walls, demanding to go to the toilets, but no one responded. We pressed the doors but they were made of iron. Prisoners of another cell managed to break free and they released us too
We ran around to help each other. Meanwhile a crowd had gathered in the prison yard and we mingled with the crowd. The main gate was burst open with the help of those who had come to check on their children and relatives who had been turned into criminals by the "regime of justice".
We ran into the street. There was no sign of the military. We ran through fields and gardens to Voronova. Near the power station we were stopped by a Russian armed soldier. He probably was not aware [of events]. The road to Molodetchno was crowded with people terrified of the new regime and who were fleeing to Russia. Some of us climbed into vehicles heading for Russia. They offered me shelter but I didn't want any. I explained that I would not be leaving before learning the fate of my family
People were wandering frightened in the fields, under attack from German bombers. We split into small groups. From Zhyrmun to Voronova I went myself. On my way I came across Russian military units who took me back [wouldn't let me through]. They had evacuated the whole town to the countryside [villages]. While walking through the forest I met two Poles. We continued together and then were stopped at a Russian checkpoint. We were ordered to put our hands up and were searched after a month without shaving, wearing our weird clothes, we looked suspicious to them. At that moment an officer came running and ordered them to leave us alone and to retreat
On the way I asked children that I met whether there were Russians or Germans. I found out the road was clear so I continued, almost running. Time was short. I wanted to know what was [happening] in my town, with my family. Suddenly I felt my legs betraying me and I couldn't continue anymore. In a village about 4km from Bastuni I saw a group of Gentiles standing around talking. One of them invited me to spend the night with them, but the look in their eyes, and their good moods, made me suspicious so I decided to continue. The Gentile who was with me did stay with them for the night, but not me. I couldn't go much further so I moved 2km away, went into a forest, laid down in a ditch with my feet up, and fell asleep.
When I approached the town I heard explosions and saw distant flames of fire mounting up to the sky. We decided to enter the town anyway. We neared the first house and our hearts were beating. As the sun came up we could see the contours of the town. Hirshke Arkin opened the door of his house and intimated to us that near the Olkenitski house and the house of the Mayor, Germans had been seen. My Christian friend continued on his way. I stayed on the porch to see what would happen. A motorcycler [German] stopped him and then let him go. The Germans continued their ride. I followed them in the same direction. When they made a turn and disappeared I continued towards my home
The house was closed and locked as if there were nobody at home. I punched and punched until my wife opened a shutter and peeked outside. She didn't recognize me with my wild beard, but when I opened my mouth and spoke, she screamed to her parents:
Meir is here!That's how I came back home from bad to worse.
by Khenye Konopke (Blitter)
Translated by Emma Karabelnik
We went from anusim to mar'anim
With the arrival of the Russians, the Voronovo community took a breath of relief. We were saved from the economic repression, hatred of the goyim, and pogroms that had threatened us in the waning years of the Polish regime. The Jews were still worried about economic problems and Yidishkeit, but they didn't have to worry about personal security anymore, and that was a relief. However the situation of Beitar people became worse, to us were attached the labels of nationalism and opportunism for revolution. We draw the attention of the Russian Secret Police and had to go hide our tracks, to disappear, and to somehow erase our past. We transformed ourselves into ‘goodguys’ enjoying the Russian light, and donned the appearance of being pure and devoted members of the new society.
First of all we burned all the lists of members in the nest. Before the Soviet immersion our headquarters were at Velvl the Blacksmith's house down the hill. The last commander had been Aharon Kalmanovitsh, but he was out of town, because for understandable reasons he had gone underground until danger had passed. So, we were ordered to do the job. I went to the nest together with Yitzach Olkenitski, we kindled the fire in the big oven, and we burned the lists of names of all the brothers and sisters, all the papers, and the pictures on the walls. Tears rolled down my cheeks as we did it. There was kind of bitterness in our hearts, a mixed feeling of selfbetrayal, a total denial of our past and our identity, although we realized the necessity of this act for the safety of our brothers and sisters. We were not able to burn the flag. Yitzach took it with him, planning to hide it underground until better times.
Thus the nest was destroyed by those who had nourished it. Thus the world of our dreams was ruined all the illusions and hopes that had filled our hearts with love and joy.
But it didn't end there.
The Russians opened their own club in town. We knew that everyone had to show up at the club. Every night the club was full of dancing and singing youth. Every night someone would appear and make a speech about the happiness and freedom brought by the new regime for the world and for us. The speech was always accepted with applause and a prolonged ovation.
We, the Beitarists, couldn't do it. Our hearts wouldn't let us go there. It wasn't a group decision, each one of us simple shared the same feelings, and we avoided the club. We didn't get together at all. We stayed away from each other, walking on opposite sidewalks, sending sad, affectionate looks to each other, understanding each other in silence. We developed our anusim skills, we used various methods of dissimulation, spent a lot of time with kosher people, enjoying the air of their kashrut. But still our hearts wouldn't let us go to the club. I always tried to spend time with Khayke Gol. She had resigned from Beitar before the war, and was considered a ‘leftie’ opportunist, extraordinarily kosher. Eventually, we [Beitarists] also had to attend the club. We realized that we were endangering ourselves and we had to go.
On the first night, when I heard one of their big speakers, tears dripped from my eyes and my heart shrank, realizing the mutual deceit, but Khaika touched my shoulder and whispered that people were paying attention to me and noticing my crying, and she ordered:
Try to clap your hands in applause even more enthusiastically than others.
And so I did.
Aliyah B to Vilne
One night an emissary of the [Tr. Note: Beitar] movement arrived, bringing a secret message that today's Voronova, following the establishment of the new borders, being situated 15 km from Lithuanian border, would be a most convenient point for transferring Zionists to freedom and to Eretz Israel. Those of us who were loyal to the movement were assigned the mission of finding farmers whose farms were close to the border, and who would agree to allow the smuggling for money.
From that night, our house became a transition station for numerous people. Many Beitar members passed through our house, also yeshiva scholars and simple Jews. They came to us in order to leave here, to find a path to salvation. They were hungry, frozen, and covered with road mud and dust brought from afar. Mother, ZL, used to welcome them with warm soup and a Jewish heart to warm their frozen bodies and to give them some encouragement and faith in another Jewish person. Chaim Baltoriski who was born in a village, was appointed as contact man with all the smugglers. He kept the money, and as soon as a message arrived that people had been moved, Chaim'ke paid the fee to the Gentile. Chaim'ke's contribution was invaluable. Some people buy their world in an hour of turmoil by becoming a friend and a patron of need. Such was Chaim Baltoriski.
Those were dramatic days and lifeendangering nights got us, taken for the sake of others. There is no bigger satisfaction. Although our home routine was gone, people sometimes stayed for several nights, and we all shared beds and resources. Crossing the border was not possible every night. Sometimes people would come back, interfering with our sleep and endangering our wellbeing, but my parents saw it as a big mitzvah of the redemption of captives, and acted with enthusiasm and devotion.
When the groups became larger, we shared the work with our dear neighbors Moshe and Iytl Olkenitski and Iytl Poditvianski, and they collaborated. On Saturdays father used to take the men to the synagogue and made arrangements for them to sleep and eat at Jewish houses. Until then all the refugees, also those from the German side, were wearing poor clothing, and didn't have a dime in their pockets. My father used to collect money to mend their shoes, to give them new clothes, and a dime for the road. Yehezkhel and Feigeh Eishishki sold them shoes with a big discount and our good Jews generously contributed to the poor tragic souls.
We developed special precautionary skills to hide those refugees illegally crossing the border. Sometimes we took the refugees' youngsters into our club, as a proof that they were here to stay.
One evening Yakov Konichovski came to us with information that the Russian secret police was getting suspicious. He said we were in great danger of being accused of serious crimes, the punishment for which was even more serious, and that we had to stop all our activity immediately. At that time, all the border checkpoints were being closed and the activity stopped anyhow. But even then our house remained suspicious in the eyes of the secret police. One day, we heard a rumor that there was a train in Bastuni ready to take all the criminals to Siberia. I was advised to flee and disappear so that all the blame would fall on me, while my family would be saved from constant danger and tension. I told this to Olkenitski. I left for Lida, and after several months he followed. With him came a group of Beitarists, and together we tried to find a way out, to get closer to the border, and to look for a chance to be smuggled out.
On the day that we went to the railway station to buy tickets to the border, I suddenly felt someone gently touch my hair. I turned my head. Beside me stood a very elegant man, he spoke Russian with exaggerated mildness:
Will you please follow me for few moments to N.K.V.D.
From the expression in his eyes I understood that I had better obey.
Those few moments turned into several months in prison. I was lucky because the person who informed on me knew nothing about me, so they had only enough evidence to keep me for several months, and to interrogate me abusively. The rest of my friends were sentenced to years of imprisonment.
Absorption Difficulties in the New Life
After my release I came back to Voronova. Life there had already come to order. There were offices and workshops. Everybody worked, old and young. The Russians taught them that if they didn't work, they wouldn't eat. My good friends advised me to start working: it would prove so they said that I was cleansed of all the nationalist nonsense and that I was becoming a part of the new life.
I looked for a job, but nobody wanted to hire me. At that time two new cooperatives of tailors and shoemakers were established in town. In the first worked the Levine brothers, in the second, the Dvilianski brothers, the Kaplan brothers, the old bachelor Volman, and the poor sickly Yankl Berl (later the story was told about Yankl Berl, who was sick and helpless, that when the Germans came to his house to take him to slaughter, he opposed, and threw a chair towards them, so they killed him right near his house). Several Poles also worked there. The accountant was Shmuel Berkovski. I turned to him in hopes of getting a job. He talked it over with the Dvilianskis and Kaplans, and they agreed to take a chance on hiring me as Shmuel's assistant. I was so well ‘cleared’ that on the 1st of May demonstration I was given the honor of carrying the red flag.
Yet, my suffering didn't stop. When the Russians ordered that the free day would be Monday, and that we would have to work on Saturdays, my doubts, and those of my religious parents, grew. Many times I thought of quitting, whatever the consequences. Luckily our cooperative burnt down in a fire, together with all the houses in the same street. Our synagogue burnt down too, but at least it was saved from desecration. They hadn't enough time to turn it into a stable or a warehouse. The fire started on Saturday, and even the Gentiles saw it as an omen from God. Luckily we were not accused of sabotage and we moved to a new place, but the constant danger of being sent away to Siberia didn't go away. We continued to live and work, but the fear of being pulled out of bed one night and being sent to the strange land was always there. We didn't know that things could be much worse.
The arrival of the Germans surprised everyone. The Russians refused to believe that the explosions were not coming from their own planes. They thought everything was foreign propaganda and sabotaga. The Jews were also surprised. The Russians, although they had lost every war and battle until then, for some reason were still considered an unbeatable power in the eyes of the Jews and other minorities. In the Beit Midrash sat Mr. Nekhemiah Shapiro, Mr. Shimshon Dlugin and my father, discussing the RussianGerman matter. Their conclusion was that the Germans would not come. Exactly at that moment I came to fetch my father home, telling them the news that the Germans were in the town. These three smart, honorable, and knowledgeable men turned pale and opened their hands in a helpless gesture.
At that moment the ground was already shaking under the heaviness of German tanks; the streets were empty. Everyone who was still in the streets on their way home, waved with a white kerchief as a peaceful harmless citizen.
The German headquarters were set in the house of Yehoshua Grodzenczik. They immediately hired 20 girls for housecleaning and I was among them. Rivke Shmerkovitsh was constantly preoccupied with thoughts. A German officer noticed it. Once he asked her why is she always dreamy and she replied:
You can force us to work but you can't force us not to dream and think!
Decrees, Orders, and Malicious Joy
The first order was to wear on one's sleeve a yellow Star of David with the word Jude inscribed. That Tuesday, the market day for years, was a black day for us. The Gentiles gathered in the center of town to see us humiliated and brought down to the level of 2nd class humans. I didn't want to go out with the patch, to give this great ‘joy’ of the Gentiles, but what could one do. One needs water and the well was on the other side of the marketplace. I went out and they sent mocking glances at me. Tears welled in my eyes, but I was not ready to make them even happier, so I didn't cry.
The second decree was enforced labor. We were taken to clear for the railway, 15km from town. When we came back after a long day of working and walking we were exhausted, and tired of life. Later, the murders started with small and big. They went from house to house, dragged the Jews out, and took them to be killed in the outskirts of town. At one such moment Binyamin Levy pleaded for mercy, telling them he was a father of 10. One of the murderers replied:
You deserve a double punishment. You brought 10 Jews to this world and now [we] have to waste 10 bullets.
The next time they went for the old and sick. They went from house to house with a list of names and killed those listed in their beds. 17 Jews were killed this way. On the next day they announced and explained their act:
We did it for your own sake. So they wouldn't infect you with their illnesses. And for the elders we did them a personal favor. We saved them from unnecessary suffering. The day will come when you'll understand that.
Witnessing the Slaughter of the Vilners
The Vilners who escaped from Vilne ghetto and came to us were hungry and exhausted. The people of Voronova took them into their homes and did everything to improve their situation. One day, I and Khayke Gol decided to go to the estate and dairyplant owner to ask for milk and dairy for the refugees. We went to him with big jugs. We had to walk for several kilometers. Halfway we saw Meir Meirovitsh running towards us from his wagon: ‘climb the wagon quickly, we'll move away from the town, it's all surrounded by Germans’.
Khayke jumped on the wagon. I decided to go back to town, to be with my parents. When I approached the Christian cemetery, I saw policemen. I asked one of them, a family acquaintance, to let me through. He looked at me as if I was crazy:
Be happy that you are outside, run and hide, he pointed to the direction of the forest but I insisted, so they let me through.
When I came home I found them sitting on the floor like mourners. I found out that the Germans and their assistants had gone from house to house, taken out all the Vilners and other strangers, and locked them in the cinema house. We talked to other families and decided to bring food to the prisoners. We divided them in small groups with every family responsible for a group.
Their imprisonment lasted for two weeks, and it's impossible to describe what those miserable people went through every day and every moment. On Saturday morning we were told that the Vilners were to be taken to another location. We thought this might be Vilne. I ran to the house of my friend Bilkeh Levine, which was near the cinema house, to watch, to listen, and to find out what was going to happen.
We saw our poor brothers, taken in long rows from the cinema to the [unknown word]. They walked in an organized manner: first men, behind them women, and at the end several children of about 5 years old. We froze at the sight of this sad procession. We stood without moving for a long while, biting our lips, breaking palms, and pulling our hair out, but we didn't weep although we understood the tragedy of their fate. Then the door opened. Yakov Kamenetski came in and shouted:
[Yiddish] Brothers, take shovels, hammers and hoes, and come to [unknown word] to bury our brothers. Don't cry, it's the 15th of Shevat.
I jumped down from the ladder to ask a question. He stopped me, put his hand on my shoulder and said:
That's how it is!
Later we were brought to the cinema house to clean up the blood of our brothers. It was an awful sight. The walls and the floors were covered with dry blood and pieces of hair, evidence of the torture and smashed skulls, the desperation and the pulled out hair indescribable atrocities. We were depressed. From that moment we knew that our end was also near and there would be no escape.
The Big Massacre
We decided to prepare a melina, a hidden bunker. We picked a small room in the house, covered the door with wallpaper similar to the wallpaper on the rest of the walls. It was meant to hold several neighboring families. We decided not to leave the house, no matter what, even if it was to become our grave.
On the morning of the massacre we found out that the pits had already been prepared for us. All illusions faded, we knew that we were doomed.
From our yard we saw the Gestapo coming in trucks. We shut ourselves in the melina. Several minutes passed and then the shooting started. We heard the Gestapo people in our house. They cursed, swore, screamed, knocked on the walls. Now they approached the door of the bunker; we all hold our breath, including the children even they knew that you had to keep quiet and not cry, not break down, not even to breath. A miracle occurred: a bucket full of excrement that the children used at night spilled at the feet of these ‘gentle’ German soldiers, and the stench drove them out of the house. They threw a curse, dirty Jews, and went away.
On that day most of the dear Voronova folk were murdered. We remained alive.
Bound For Slaughter to Lida and Another Bunker
We were relocated to the Lida ghetto. We were placed in the same rooms from which Jews had been taken to mass murder the day before. There were a lot of pillows in the rooms. Those were not the savage murderers that tear up pillows and scatter feathers in the streets, like those collaborating pogromists, the Poles, Ukrainians and Lithuanians. These [Germans] would come back after the slaughter and steal all the pillows and send them to their country, to the State. Russian pogroms were for the benefit of the state, but the spoils belonged to the collaborators. Germans were different: the spoils of even the millionth pogrom would be contributed to the State. The State would know how to clean up the blood of the victims, clean up the national conscience, and to launder the stains.
In Lida we looked for a melina again. In our flat stayed several families, among them were carpenters. We made a design. The entrance had to be from inside the house, otherwise there'd be no time to get in and stay. It had to be underground and must have an exit outside the yard, outside the camp.
The men did the digging and we the girls took away the soil. It was very hard. During the day we worked on roadways, and at nights we dug and moved the soil as far as possible in order to scatter it in a wide perimeter, so that no one would notice. The construction of the melina ruined our bodies and sapped our remaining energy. The tension and the fear weakened our souls and depressed us.
People in the ghetto were well aware of the situation. They knew there was no hope and this depressed them. Some adopted the attitude of 'eat and drink because tomorrow you die'. There were even marriages in the ghetto.
May Werner Be Damned
The hard daily work exhausted us and we almost lost our will to live, but things were still bearable. Much harder to bear was employer abusefrom both the Germans and their collaborators. Abuse kills all life in a person. He becomes a living dead, a state which is hard to describe. The employers were cruelthirsty animals, and the worst of them was Werner. This German was a cruel sadist who couldn't live without causing suffering to someone else. He had a huge German Shepherd trained, upon a tiny sign, to attack a person and tear him up into pieces, or tear off his skin. Werner also chose Polish guards similar to himself, stupid and miserable sadists. They always found a pretense to take away our free day of week as a punishment for our crimes.
Once Konopke, a degraded Pole, said:
You are building a highway but you'll never have the opportunity to use it.
Yes, we are going to die, but Palestine is in creation and it will be ours forever, while you, stupid Poles will die the death of traitors, and your country will be destroyed and torn like it always has been in history.
He lowered his head. My words penetrated, and he was quiet to my surprise and the surprise of others. It was the same week the Germans had hanged 18 Polish priests in Krakow, and the Poles got that message.
Next morning everyone went out to work. A rumor had spread in the ghetto: from then on we would not be killed onebyone shootings, now there would be mass murders by gas.
The good German who told us the news added:
Gas is a good thing, there is no pain and the death comes quickly.
German stupidity, or the naiveté of a good soul? In either case our situation was made clear to us. People made plans to flee to the forest. Many talked about Tuvye Bielski, his men and actions, but the problem was that partisans accepted only young people who could fight, and only if they came with their own weapons. So, what should we do? We the girls, and our old parents? One of our neighbors suggested he would take along one of our sisters with him, but where could we find money to pay half the price of a gun, as he demanded?
In a short time a solution was found‘ Near the highway where we worked often passed a nice Pole, whom we knew as an honest man. We told him about our troubles. We agreed to sell him our clothes, and he would bring the money. So Rivke went with the neighbor to the forest hoping to pull us out later. After her went Yaffe, and we waited for our turn. A few days passed; our dream ended when our sisters returned to the ghetto. They told us that there had been a German attack and the whole Bielski squad had scattered towards all directions in the forest. Again, a shred of hope had been smashed. The only remaining hope was the bunker, and who could know whether it would be enough.’
The Bunker was Breached by its Residents
On that night, Mother was the first to notice that the ghetto was surrounded. She woke us up. The ghetto was in turmoil. The Germans ordered everyone to step outside. All Jews were to be moved to Lublin. We knew it was extermination: the end.
The Germans were already standing at our doorstep when we disappeared into the ditch and inside the bunker. We stayed there for a whole week after the ghetto was emptied of Jews. We were 15 people. We, the young girls, had to lie in the ditch. The place was narrow. People lost conscious from time to time. Every day, the Germans came back to check for any remaining witnesses to their crimes. On the eighth day we all were already drenched, we couldn't stand it anymore. One of us broke down the door and went out:
If we don't go out now, we will all die and rot here he screamed.
Others followed, and the melina was breached. Suddenly we found ourselves standing in the fresh air, blinded by the light. It was raining. We came close to the ghetto fence. We found an opening in the fence. We went through it, one after another. Father widened the opening for us and we went through. When it was his turn his coat got caught in the iron wire and he couldn't move. Meanwhile people continued forward. Mother, who was sure, that he'd get free in a moment, went with them. My two sisters went with her. I and my sister Mineh stayed with our father. We were already far behind. Father begged us to go back to the bunker, we didn't want to.
When we came to the cemetery, which was close to the ghetto, we lay down between the graves: we couldn't move, for a few meters away a policeman stood and smoked. What to do? Suddenly his cigarette went out. The rain strengthened. He must have gone to his friend for a light. We took the opportunity to run out of the cemetery and leave the guarded area.
On our way we found a pigsty, we got in and stayed for the night. We were wet and frozen, exhausted and tired of life. Early in the morning the farmer came to the pigsty and discovered us, he crossed himself, went back to the house and brought us blankets and hot coffee.
We spent the day in the pigsty. From afar we could hear German sirens activated in the ghetto, they wanted to scare the last remaining Jews hiding in melinas. Towards night we were asked by the Gentile to leave. We went to look for the rest of our family, and to the forest.
We will remember this good Gentile forever. How he parted from us and how he escorted us to the exit. It's hard to express the feelings of foreboding that we were heading towards certain death, and that he could do nothing to help us.
After liberation we went to visit him. He almost fainted seeing us alive, as if he were looking at the dead raised from the grave.
Into the Forest and in the Forest
On the way we lost our way and came close to a German post. We hid, survived, and went on. At some point we met a young shepherd. We asked him to show us the way to the forest. We offered him money. He took the money, but then changed his mind out of fear. He told us to go in a certain direction there lived an estate owner who would let us in and feed us.
The atmosphere in the house was warm and pleasant. The table was loaded with the best food. The whole family was sitting around the table and steam rose from a bowl in the middle of the table. I approached him and told him that my father and sister were waiting outside, hungry for many days now. He took out of the bowl 2 potato latkes soaked and dripping with pork oil. I refused to take them. I said father wouldn't eat them and I preferred to take bread. He became angry, stood up from his chair and shouted:
Get out of here quickly!
Before I opened the door, I took courage:
Sir I said, we too had once a warm home and serene life. Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring.
We went out. Good gentiles advised us to stay at a distance. After several minutes two Russian partisans appeared, we were happy to see them. They were shocked by Father's appearance: it was a strange sight for them to see a traditional Jew. They greeted us, but immediately started shouting and cursing:
Until now you spent your time in the ghetto, partying with the Germans, far from danger. Now, when the danger comes close, you ran away.
They put us in their wagon and took us to a park. We thought that they are taking us to Bielski, but they tricked us. They took our father to Bielski and dragged us to their squad. We opposed, cried, and begged, but they threatened to kill us if we didn't come with them. We cried even harder and threatened to scream. They began to hesitate, we clung to each other, and leaned together against a tree. Suddenly we heard a shot. They got scared and left.
We stayed in the park for the night, deciding to continue in the morning. But suddenly the two ‘heroes’ came back, robbed our boots, and all our possessions, and ordered us to run away.
On the way to the forest a lot of Jews, refugees from Lida ghetto, were wandering around. We joined one of the groups and reached Bielski's squad.
It was Rosh Hashana eve. We stretched our coats and sat down, to rest from the road, the stress and the hunger. Here we remembered that our mother and sisters are not with us.
The rumor of our arrival spread throughout the camp, and on the next day we heard someone calling us by names. The rest of our family had preceded us and came to Bielski before we did, now we were united.
Voronova a Town of Graves and a Child's Hand
After the Russian victory over the Nazis we went back to Voronova. We were given jobs, they let us live there, but the sight of our houses occupied by our neighbors was unbearable and prevented us from settling down there.
Father went to see the graves of the martyrs, [to see] if they were well covered. I went with him, and we were joined by several survivors. We started digging. The first layer was hard. I found a pole, knocked hard, and the cover opened up. A horrible sight opened to us. Corpses piled one upon another, and clods of dry blood mixed with soil. Suddenly I saw a small hand, a tiny one, poking out between the corpses, stretched up towards the world of orphans: a hand of a Jewish toddler, as if begging to be taken out of this deadly pit. Spontaneously I stretched my arm to him as a mother would stretch her hand to her baby [to take him] for a walk. The bone had already disintegrated and his palm remained in my arm and I was shattered. Suddenly N.K.V.D guards came on horses and drove us away, to prevent the spread of diseases. I succeeded in taking four bullets stained with blood with me, as a horrific souvenir.
These were some of the bullets that exterminated the Voronova Jews, horrible bullets sent toward Jewish eternity hoping it would lie down. But it didn't lie down.
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