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[Pages 74-107]

Ghettos and the Forest

by M[eir] Shamir (Shmerkovitsh)

Translated by Emma Karabelnik


The First Pursuit

In the afternoon the Nazi Army appeared on vehicles, tanks, and cannons. The town was hiding behind doors and blinds, afraid to stick its head out.

In the evening we heard strong slaps on our doors. We were frightened, but then we heard a voice in Polish and it calmed us:

“Yakov” – it said – “open up. It's me the sultis (village headman).”

We asked what he wanted and didn't open the door.

“First open” – he said – “and don't worry.”

We opened.

He explained that the German Mayor (Commandant) had called for me. He wanted to put me in charge of the power station, because he had gotten good recommendations from the station employees about my being a professional and a hard–working man.

I dressed up and went with the headman. In town I was taken to the Commandant's office, passing all the guards. I knocked on his door, went in, and announced:

“You called for me sir, and I am ready for your command.” He read a list of things which had to be repaired at the station, and then went to his secretary and dictated a personal pass for me. In the end he said:

“The electrician Shmerkovitsh Meir is appointed as the head electrician and nobody is allowed to employ him at any other job. He is permitted to walk around Voronova during day and night, and nobody may stop him.”

He personally signed and sealed.

Before I left he said that if required I may get assistance from workers sent by the Yudenrat.

In town everybody was eager to get some kind of permit or certificate in order to get work in town and not to be sent away. Believe me, in general a permit is the “safer” [of the two].

When I came to the Yudenrat and asked for workers to help me repair the tolls thrown down by the tanks, people started following me, offering money to hire them. Most of them were people that never did physical work before. It made me sick. Isn't it funny that even in such a difficult hour, the privileged sought to get an advantage by using their money? I took 15 workers who used to work at the mill during the Soviet regime. They worked with me until we put up all the tolls and repaired the power lines. After that some of them continued as steam boilers, harvesters, and general workers at the station.

There was a Pole who was in charge of me. My salary was about 80% of the usual salary [in my position] because I was a Jew. It was 800 rubles per month. It was usually paid to me in groceries, groats, flour, etc. There is always plenty of work for an electrician – at the power station and private jobs. I also repaired telephones. All the Germans used me as the exclusive institution for all [their requirements]. Later they all wanted me to install tape recorders in homes, and they all nagged me.

One day, a group of “snatchers” came to town. One of them, a policeman with a tin helmet on his head, asked us if we were Jews. We didn't deny this. He ordered us, when we are back in town, to assemble in the marketplace, women and men separately. Both I and my father–in–law understood that if they are separating men and women, the situation was getting worse. We decided not to go to the marketplace. We left our working tools with the women and jumped over the fence into the nearby cemetery. We stayed together for a while and then separated because I wanted to check what was happening in my parents' house. I ran through the streets and came in the back door. We had a big cowshed, old and in miserable state. High under the roof was a pile of old straw. It was hard to climb there. I urged my father and my brother, and the three of us climbed up there to hide.

From time to time mother would come to the stall and update us on events in the marketplace, although we knew well before she told us. The whining, the noise, the cries brought to our ears, described the situation well. We even heard screeching orders given by Polish policemen looking for every hiding place and ordering [people] to move to the marketplace. We heard the sounds of beatings on those who were discovered, and the cries of those who were beaten. From time to time we had the opportunity to look out and see these depressing scenes. We also saw how our good longtime neighbors pounced on our property, grabbed everything they could, and robbed the Jewish houses.

They didn't by–pass our house. One of them even tried to climb the crumbling ladder. He changed his mind, retreated, and began shouting at us, without seeing us:

“Come down bastards, or I'll shoot you as dogs, bloody Jews.”

We lay close together, terrified, but we didn't reply, we didn't expose ourselves. Finally he went away.

After a while, when the marketplace disaster was over, we learned what was the objective had been, and why it had been organized. Apparently, eight trucks with Gestapo men had been brought in to organize a hunt, and let our Christian neighbors get some satisfaction from [Jewish] blood. They asked our neighbors to tell them which Jews who had collaborated with the Soviets, and then every neighbor pointed at someone with whom he wanted to get even, or at someone whose property he wanted for himself. Those Jews were dragged out of their houses. Among them were two sons of Shmuel Shelovski, David and Zerahke, Yitzach Volpianski and others. They were beaten to death with rubber sticks, loaded on the trucks, and taken to an unknown destination from which nobody returned.

After this horrible, cruel hunt, the Poles began vengeful activities against Jews. The Polish youth, and even children, enlisted into the police, even those who had been devoted communists or worked for the Soviets. There were also some Soviets who had stayed in town, remnants of the previous regime. They were all united in their cruelty against Jews. This police used to patrol the Jewish neighborhood, performing terrible acts. One time, they came to our street and ordered all the women to come outside. Each woman who didn't act as ordered was beaten with a haft. I happened to be home at that time. I didn't allow my pregnant wife and my mother to go out. For some reason the local policemen didn't go in, instead they sent in a policeman from outside the area. He went in and found my wife in the last room. He grabbed her and pushed her to go outside. I wanted to attack him, but my father–in–law Yakov Grodzenchik caught my hand and stopped me. Outside, the policemen stood in a line with sticks and whips in their hands. The women had to march before the line several times with slaps and blows falling on their heads. The “reason” was that the street was dirty, and this was the women's responsibility.

Meanwhile, law and order were more or less stabilized, and the Germans arrived to establish a civilian order.

The arrival of German civilians had a calming effect on the Jews in town. They hoped the Poles would now become restrained. Immediately, an order was given that Poles were not allowed to enter Jewish homes without a German order. The Yudenrat people and bribers eased the situation a bit. The Yudenrat supplied them [the Germans] with all their needs for one purpose alone – so they wouldn't let Poles rule, racket, and bully us. Much of this was done by Pinkhas Grodzenchik–– whatever the Germans needed he supplied. And the Jews gave him everything he asked for, but mostly he collected from his own rich relatives so as to avoid scandals when a Jew wouldn't let go of something [that was later confiscated].

The Germans also requested workers for road work, work at the railway station, or in the forests, where the work consisted mostly of loading wagons. The Germans used to bully workers. Jews returned from work beaten and bleeding. People were afraid to work in the forests and started to look for work in town, even as servants for Germans and Poles. Some paid their last money, jewelry, and gold just to be accepted as “needed”.

My mother was approached by her old friend Rachel Weiner who asked to take her Moshe as my assistant. She brought valuables with her as a heart–opening present. My mother became angry at her offer. She promised to help without any bribes. Moshe was then about 45 years old, he had graduated the Vilne Technion [technical school] in electricity but he never worked at it. All his life Moshe had been a shop owner and earned good money. I went to the Mayor and requested him to allow me Moshe as an assistant. I did this to please my mother, because he couldn't be a real assistant to me. The Mayor approved my request. This not only provided Moshe with an easy job including full freedom of movement approved by the police, but also saved his and his family's lives.

The days flew by and there was no ghetto in Voronova. Horrible rumors had come from other towns about ghettos and terrible actions that were taking place there. Especially horrible were the rumors from Ponar and Vilne. We couldn't believe that Jews were being killed wholesale, group by group, and community after community. But one day after an action in the Vilna ghetto, 250 Jews from Vilne came looking for shelter. The authorities took notice and began looking for them. We were ordered not to let anyone from Vilna in, God forbid. Regretfully we followed the orders and didn't let in even a brother, as it happened to Alitovitsh Yitzach's family who couldn't take in their brother Moshe from Vilne. He had to hide in the cemetery, where he was caught.

The hunt for Vilne Jews continued for a week. Everybody was caught, arrested, kept in the cinema building, and later shot. The mass grave of Vilne Jews in Voronova is situated in the field near the Smuk Forest.


The cinema house where Vilne Jews were kept and tortured


Only then did I realize that all the rumors about the German, and their collaborators', cruelty, were true. The town was struck by mortal panic. People avoided going outside. From one day to another the orders of the new regime became more and more severe. People were ordered to wear the yellow star. Borders and lines were drawn to indicate areas where we were allowed, and also curfew hours were imposed – even for those streets where we were allowed to walk.

One Sunday evening while we were busy repairing a power line not far from Gestapo headquarters, we suddenly heard a shower of shots that went on and on like hail. We looked outside through the windows and saw people running and falling near the fence, one after another. I clearly saw Khaneh Dukshtulski fall dead before my eyes close to where we were working. Her head was stuck in the snow and her blood colored [the snow] and our hearts. Later we found out that those had been Jews named by Poles as collaborators with communists and enemies of the regime, and also Jews from nearby towns who had been looking for shelter in our town. The organizer of this hunt and execution was a German policeman who bragged of having high morals and not being a Nazi.


Preparations for Slaughter

At the same time an order was issued by which Christians were not allowed to visit Jewish homes, meaning Jews would not be able to buy provisions.

The Poles strictly followed this order. The Jews then offered them their most expensive valuables, furniture, and clothes in return for their help during those hard days. These acts brought some Christians to the idea that it would be better to kill all the Jews and get their property for free. My father–in–law realized this and forbade us from offering bribes. The Jews started digging holes as hiding places for the fruits of their hard work. Everything was hidden: clothes and grain, legumes and gold, goods and money. All was hidden in various places: the walls, the yards, the floors, the stalls and in fields under trees.

After everything was hidden, rumors spread about slaughter of Voronova Jews, so we started to dig hiding places for ourselves. We built bunkers with secret tunnels, or double walls in the houses. And indeed many survived thanks to these preparations.

Some made plans with Christian friends to hide with them when the hour would come and they would have to sneak away from their slaughterers. There were some Christians who dug bunkers in their stalls to save Jews. But others informed on Jews to the Gestapo, after taking all their belongings.

Finally, the news of an action arrived; we received it with despair. One morning, it was on July 15, 1941, we woke up to find ourselves surrounded by Polish Police and the Gestapo. A ring of predators closed around us who were in fear and panic. Jews ran around, going from one to another with outspread arms and hands clapping in helplessness and despair. What to do? We saw the death standing just near us, crawling and approaching. What can we do?

Some sneaked out and managed to get to the house of their Christian saviors. Not all succeeded for the guard was tight. In those days we were trapped, with no loopholes. Meanwhile one of the Gentiles turned it into a business. He had connections with the police. For 20 golden rubles per head he smuggled Jews out. Some managed to be saved this way. Others were shot by their saviors as soon as they paid and were taken outside. It happened mostly to those who were considered rich, because after their death all their property could be confiscated and the house, the land, and the property taken over. That's what happened to Binyamin Kaplan, Nakhum Grodzenchik, Khanne Dlugin, Leyzer Katzenellenbogen – and others.

The first line of guards let them through, but close to the forest the second line of Polish guards killed them and robbed all their possessions.

On the next day Jews went there and buried them near the new market. When it became known, Jews stopped trying this sort of activity.

Meanwhile the siege continued. One day a few youngsters came to me and invited me to flee to the forest. One of them had a gun. We met behind houses and discussed our big secret. I couldn't decide. I really wanted to leave. I wanted to fight instead of being led to slaughter like sheep, but I was tied to my family by special circumstances. Just several months earlier my wife had given birth to our first daughter. That confused me. I had difficulty deciding. Some people tried to convince me to stay, saying men with a profession would not be endangered, they would be needed, so their families would be spared too. Or – on the contrary – if we were to leave we'd be condemning our families to death.

Finally I decided to flee to the forest. There were several others like me so we decided to leave as a fighting group, not individually.

On the designated day in late afternoon a hail of bullets was fired in the enclosed ghetto. Several Jews were killed while innocently passing the guard line. So, we had to stay. In addition, on the next day I was called in to the power station to repair some problem. I returned from there late at night. On my way I was stopped at one of the checkpoints, but my permit helped me to get through. When I arrived home the whole family was deathly worried. I was upset with myself, that I hadn't run straight from the station to the forest. During the day the rumor had spread that this day would be fatal. Again panic, again helplessness.

At noon the Governor arrived from Lida. He calmed the Yudenrat and promised them that nothing bad would happen to the local Jews. “They only want to check papers”. We didn't believe him. The police informed him that many Jews are fleeing, so his intentions were already clear.

During that night all checkpoints and police forces were reinforced.

Next morning I met Ugerman, the SS man. He called me aside and said:

“People are fleeing. It's not good. At least don't you flee. They will not touch you. They need you. You are the only senior electrician in the area.”

He added:

“I promise you I'll be at my office at 6. I'll talk to my commander about you and then update you. And if there'll be a reason, I myself will urge you to leave. Some Jews saw me talking to him. When I came back home many came to hear what we had talked about.”

Impatiently we waited for 6 o'clock.

At that hour a neighbor came to tell me that the German policeman was waiting for me at the corner.

I went over to him with all the neighbors watching us from their windows. He took me to a side street and began a long speech in which he assured me that the commander specifically mentioned that I would not be touched because “electrician is a big deficit” and I should be spared because I am very valued professionally. Besides, he advised me not to abandon my family, and said that he also had a high opinion of me as a professional.

Silently, with my head down, I listened to him. We parted with handclap: I wouldn't flee.

But my confidence left me. I did believe him somewhat. He liked me only because of my punctuality and good service. I installed a tape recorder in his room so he could listen to any conversation, and he was very satisfied. There were also rumors in town that after anyone left, their family would be immediately executed. This was the main factor that stopped me. My head exploded from thoughts for and against. In my situation it seemed reasonable to stay and save myself and my family.

I stayed.

On the next day I was thrown out of my home together with my 2 families, including my parents. We were gathered in the marketplace. The deportation started in its full strength. The Germans recruited local Christians for this job who came to the marketplace armed with pitchforks and axes. They went from house to house and dragged all the Jews to the marketplace, they did it with exceptional eagerness.

I and my families were the last to get out from the house. At the marketplace we saw all the Jews of the town seated on the ground while a lot of motorcycles and policemen swarmed around them. I had to go around the square so the Nazis wouldn't notice me. But the commander's eyesight was sharp. He noticed me and shouted:

“Electrician, hey you! Come here!”

It was a shouted order.

Everybody turned their heads to me. I was scared. I started to push myself between the miserable crowd, squeezing together with my family and their babies in their arms. I walked straight to the commander who, with his giant height and his huge bat, could scare to death any hero and brave man. He asked:

“Who are the people with you?”

I replied: “This is my family and this is my wife's family.”

He ordered us to sit aside. I understood his intention. Everybody understood that he intended to save us, me and those related to me. Instantly people turned to him with different requests. People asked to be attached to me, but he didn't react. He walked around loftily above everyone, tapping his high boots with his whip. Pinkhas Grodzenchik begged most of all, who did so much for his people and was literally begging for his life. But the commander didn't even bother to answer him, and when he wouldn't let go, he raised his voice and shouted nervously:

“Don't' prattle too much ([Tr. Note: repeated in Yiddish]).” Everybody became quiet, it filled them with fear.

We continued sitting while the German decided on the methods of the ‘action’.

Meanwhile we were approached by the Governor of Lida district. He asked why we were separated from others, why we were sitting on the side. When we told him it was the commander's orders, he took us to the others and mixed us with the crowd that was already standing in line for selection. So it happened that I and my family were the last in line. I was holding our baby and my wife was holding her mother's baby.

She told us:

“If we are going to die, at least our baby will survive.”

My parents and brother were behind us.

When we approached the selection we already knew what was going on, who was going to death and who to life, it all depended on type and age. Meanwhile one could already hear the sounds of the shots from afar. The commander of the police came to me and said:

“When you approach the table, show them your diploma and permit.”

And he disappeared.

Suddenly all my hopes for survival deteriorated. I saw that they were tired of selecting and were just sending everybody to die. We accepted our destiny. Still I had some hope that at the critical moment the local commander would be on my side. I searched for him with my eyes, but he couldn't be seen. When it was my turn, he suddenly appeared. The governor asked:

“What is your profession?”

I replied – electrician.

He took my papers and work permit for inspection, and then the local commander spoke up:

“The man has to stay here.”

I was pointed to the left.

“And where are your people?”

He turned us all to the left side and left us with the police.

When I was in Germanishki Street, I suddenly heard lots of shooting. The Germans became confused and I discovered the reason for it. It was because of what Yitzakh Olkenitski had done. When he had felt he couldn't take anymore, he had raised his arm and punched one of the Germans. His friends reacted immediately and fired bullets at him. He was killed right in front of my eyes. He was standing just several meters from me. This scene shocked us strongly. It was a demonstration of what would happen when a person didn't go like a sheep, but also it was a demonstration of resistance, and an example for all of us.

I went to the group that had been sent to the left. They were seated on the ground. We sat down too. Somebody called to me in German from the nearby house of Itteh Olkenitski:

“Electrician, don't be scared. Those are sentenced to live!”

At that moment I didn't appreciate his comforting words. He didn't make me happy. I felt dizzy even though I realized that this time I and my family had been spared.

My dear father Yosef buried his face in the ground; his heart wouldn't let him see how his town people were being driven to death, his friends and comrades for long years and through generations. My mother also covered her face and murmured:

“My God where are you?”

We saw people watching their relatives march to death. They were punching themselves in the heads. How could they watch it? How could we watch the people of our town, dear Jews, old friends and relatives, old and young, taken to a cruel death, in a cruel way.

Driven like animals to slaughter: here is Yehoshua Grodzenchik and his family, here is Shimshon Dlugin and his children, and with him Pinkhas Grodzenchik and his wife Yehudit and their innocent child. And more innocent children, some less than a year of age, some who were walking holding hands, united together to die together on their last day. I hated my life: at that moment I just wanted to die. I knew that my survival would also not last forever: they'd keep us as only as long as they needed us.

At some moment a tall German approached us and began a long speech. We had to realize that we had survived and that it was a great privilege, an act of grace. While speaking he spread a blanket on the ground and ordered us to put all our money there, gold and everything that we had on us. Later he said everyone would be searched, and if something were to be found, the person would be executed. Obviously, everybody put their valuables on the blanket, but some hid items under pavement stones, without knowing that they were being watched from the Dvilianski house balcony by policemen peeking through the windows and watching our every movement. Later, after we were taken from there, they came back and took everything. The blanket was full of stuff. They wrapped it by folding the corners, put it in a car, and took it away.

Then we were joined by some of those who had been pointed to the right. They were probably being required for work in nearby towns, plans had changed. When the selection was over we were all assembled in the marketplace again. There we listened to a speech that we should be the happiest people to have survived. From then on we would live in a special Jewish quarter, etc.


The Clothes of the Victims Returned to the Town

After the speech we were all called to come to the table and we were registered. Meanwhile all those who were hiding stepped out of the bunkers, and [also those who] were not present at the action [in the marketplace]. Among them was the Konopke family and others. There were families whose babies had exposed them by crying, and they were murdered. Others tried to silence and choked their babies with their own hands.

Leah, Moshe Olkenitski's wife, chose another way – when her baby started crying she took him out into the street and was taken to die, but she didn't expose her husband, and eventually he survived.

During the registration terrible scenes occurred. People were crying, sobbing, and whining like children. Some fainted and couldn't regain consciousness. Some of them remained without parents, others without children or wives, and the shootings still continued to exterminate all the Jews of Voronova.

But the most awful scene occurred when the wagons with the clothes of the murdered arrived. The victims had been forced to undress before their deaths. Everyone recognized the clothing of their relatives, as if they were still standing before their eyes. Nobody could remain calm looking at those clothes: it was a total breakdown. And then one Pole approached a wagon and started searching the clothes for gold and money. This was too much even for the German. He approached the Pole, pushed him away, and beat him up. He was a telephonist [telephone operator]. It's important to pause and mention the last German telephonists. They were different from their predecessors. They were less eager to abuse, to swoop on booty, to participate in violent acts. They quietly did their job, while those before them had befriended corrupt Poles and their wives–prostitutes, and participated in the brutal murders of Jews. These last ones dismissed the [Polish] women and preferred Jewish or elderly women instead. When we used to come to them to fix electrical problems, they always tipped us with something, cigarettes or food. We never left empty–handed. Especially outstanding was their driver. I'll tell about him later.

After the registration we were allowed to leave to the designated quarter. The clothes were taken to the municipality building and we followed them as if were following human corpses [as at a funeral] with damp eyes and broken hearts. We were forbidden to go to our own houses by the Poles and the Mayor, but with the mediation of Germans, we were able to go to our houses for a couple of minutes just to take a few things. I asked a German policeman to escort me to my house, allegedly to take my toll climbing equipment and other working tools. The house was almost completely ruined. The Poles had taken advantage while we were at the marketplace, robbing and destroying our homes. Even the German [with me] was shocked by the level of vandalism. He shrugged and said:

“Damned are these Poles.”

He let me take everything I could find.


From the Pig's Street in Voronova to Lida ghetto

The quarter designated for Jews was in Lida Street. We were crammed 8–10 people in one house. It was very narrow and tight.

On the next day I went out with to work my “climbers” over my shoulder. I continued so [every morning] for a week, until an order arrived to relocate all the Voronova Jews to Lida [town], where all the Jews in the surrounding area were to be concentrated. The order mentioned that every Jew not able to be replaced by a Christian should stay until further notice.

The deportation had to be performed in 2 days, and again turmoil began. Who would be allowed to stay? Jews started offering money, clothes, and gold to policemen, to let them remain in town. Everyone declared a profession. Meanwhile, the Poles filled their hands with gold and treasures. They were the ones responsible for this operation, so by spreading sweet promises they milked everyone's valuables.

I was almost sure that I'd be staying because they needed me, and so I didn't throw my money to the winds. I didn't ask or bribe anyone. My boss was a Pole. He also wanted to grab at the opportunity so he told all the employees at the mill and power station that he'd keep them. He also promised my job to someone else. I was informed of this by friends. I didn't want to believe them. After all, I was the only head electrician in the area and no one could dare to replace me. But still I became concerned. I went to the municipality, but I couldn't get anything out of them. Even my boss dismissed me, saying nothing. Later I found out about the whole story.

The boss's brother told me that the former station manager had bribed his brother to put him at the station in my place. I decided no to talk about it to my “rivals”, but to try and save my position in another way.

In the evening I took my climbers and went to see the Nazi commander. For hours I walked up and down in the street waiting for him to come out. The street was already dark by the time I saw him walking. I pretended to be walking home from work and “ran” into him. I greeted him. He asked what's new at work. How is the electricity? I replied that it was my last day at work because the boss had hired someone else in my place.

When he heard this he was furious and shouted:

“What? Who is the other one? Who made the decision?”

I said:

“I have no idea, that's what I was told at the municipality.”

He declared:

“It won't happen! I need a professional, a person with skills!” – and went away.

I continued home in a bad mood: the municipality in putting together a list of vital persons had chosen my rival instead of me, and I believed nobody could change that.

On the next day everybody was ordered to prepare to leave the town. No one knew if we'd be going by car or by foot, or where we are going. Everybody was making preparations, making packages, packing everything that they might need on the way. It was hard to part from our belongings, used for years, passed from generation to generation: those were life's souvenirs. People knew that the moment after their departure they'd be robbed of everything. Their hearts didn't want to let them leave their stuff to the robbers.

I prepared the crib and diapers for the baby, put together several packages, and we were ready to leave.

One by one, our Jewish brothers went out from their houses. I went out, pushing the crib in front of me. When I was already on the pavement, the commander approached me with a piece of paper. He asked me:

“Where are you going?”

I replied:

“I got an order to go out to the street.”

He ordered me to go back and stay in the house. From our whole neighborhood only I and my wife were permitted to remain.

The quarter was empty. The houses were standing with open windows and doors. There was not a single resident from the street. The Christians walked around from house to house, searching, picking and taking whatever they wanted. Many poor Christians became rich in this manner. They walked around with iron skewers and discovered every item in every hiding place – under the floors, in the walls, and the other hiding places. When they came to my house and found me there they were very surprised and withdrawn. The three of us were seated on a coiled blanket in the middle of the room, as if convicts awaiting execution of a verdict.

Our parents were out “there” with all the Jews. I was heartbroken that I couldn't do anything for them.


Voronova of 13 Families

After half an hour, 13 Jewish families began the return to their homes. This was the group that wasn't being deported yet. All the others were being sent by foot to the railway station at Bastuni, and from there to Lida by train.

After an hour we were again assembled in the marketplace. The commandant called out names one by one from a list. We were assigned to a narrow street that was called Street of Pigs, and used to be the residence of poor Christians in the town. At the end he gave an encouraging speech, telling us we'd be taken care of and that he wouldn't let anyone harm us.

We had to live several families to one room. I chose [Tr. Note: unknown word: kuf–resh–resh] of police, Chaim Maulkenik,[1] and we occupied the house of Kudliansky.

Our neighborhood wasn't surrounded by a fence and nobody guarded us. Every one continued to do his work and sent food packages to their families in Lida through Chaim Solts Maulkenik. We bought the food from local gentiles and the shipments were done secretly.

This continued for four weeks. We lived and worked, a handful of Jews in emotional stress, until we were informed that we'd also be deported to Lida.

Luckily the information was given to us a week before its implementation. During that week we managed to sell all our belongings. The narrow street turned overnight into a lively “market”. Peasants from the area bought everything they could put their hands on. The Polish policemen tried to stop them by informing the Germans, but the Germans didn't mind and the trade continued.

Towards the end of the week the final order arrived, to leave the town… to Lida.

The truth is that we managed to sell everything. Our only worry was what if the Germans performed body searches and took away all our money and valuables. We thought this was their intention when they had let us continue the commerce: they simply wanted to lay hands on all our profits. We didn't know how to save the last of our money, and how to smuggle it into Lida.

On the day [of deportation] the German who worked as a driver for the telephonists came over and took me and Chaim Solts aside, and told us:

“You must know that you'll be ripped of everything you have. You better leave the money with me and I'll bring it to you in Lida.”

We knew the man. We trusted him as a decent and humane person. We passed him 75 thousand marks.

On the next day 26 wagons were brought, two for each family. We loaded everything, especially flour, potatoes and other groceries, and all that we had bought from the gentiles with the money earned from [selling] our belongings. We went to the German quarter, everything was thoroughly checked, and we went off to Lida.

On our way to Lida we began to talk about escaping to the forests and joining the partisans. The peasants told us that in the forest new Russian and Jewish partisan groups are forming. Before we arrived to Lida, we had decided to leave Lida.

In Zhyrmun it became dark and we had to stop and give the horses some rest. The peasants took advantage of the opportunity and robbed everything they could, our groceries and vital items. Those Poles were born with no conscience. A German soldier did what he did because he has been ordered to do so, but they robbed and murdered at every opportunity, they murdered for plunder.


Lida Ghetto

At 9PM we entered Lida ghetto. The wire fence had a depressing effect on us. We unloaded the wagons, each at his families' house.

We barely had time to rest from the road, which we had partly made by foot, when some terrified Jews came running and told us that a German was looking for us and calling our names from a list. We decided to be careful. Me and Chaim decided to go first, and what a surprise! We saw at the fence our German driver looking for us.

This Righteous of the Nations man didn't spare his time and energy to ride on his bike for 35 km. He handed us all our money. He didn't want any reward. He said goodbye and returned on his bike to Voronova.

We found the Jews in Lida ghetto depressed and horrified. A few days before our arrival the Germans had gathered all the “foreign” Jews, especially those from Vilne, who had entered the ghetto illegally and had been living under false identities as locals. They were killed in one day. The act had a horrifying impact on the ghetto for a long time. In conversations with old ghetto residents we found out that they had a negative opinion of the Yudenrat.

The next day, when we were sent to work, each one of us was asked his profession in order to assign us to the German workshops. We saw Jewish workers coming to work holding professional diplomas. But we were enlightened that in order to be accepted in a workshop, which was easy work and ensured comfortable life, one needn't be a professional. Everything could be arranged by the Yudenrat with gold.

Good that we were warned in advance. We decided to oppose the Yudenrat if they tried to make similar demands from us [for gold].

Meanwhile I was sent with several others to dig a basin in the commandant's yard. I did this work for a few days. I made friends with the commandant's driver, a Polish guy, a radio technician. After a few conversations he offered me work with him in the garage. He obtained the permission of the commandant, and I began working as his assistant.

The work was not too pleasant because the commandant used to stand over my head and rush me to hurry up and repair flat tire, or something else. However, it had its advantages: it was close to the ghetto, and I came back home clean.

At some point the Yudenrat wanted to push me out of this job in order to put in one of their own, but I resisted. At the request of the Yudenrat the police intervened, they tried to arrest me without trial, and to force me into the cellar of the Jewish police building. The incident ended with beatings, as 5 Jewish policemen confronted me together with their infamous commander. Luckily I managed to overcome them by hitting the commander in the chin. They had no choice but to release me, but I was like a malignant thorn to them and they put an eye on me. I continued to work in the garage against their will.

One day the Yudenrat received an order to assign 1,000 Jews for railway works near Krasnei. I was one of them. They separated me from my wife and child. We did hard work, and all we had to eat was half a kilo of bread and a bit of soup. The discipline was like in the military, everything was managed by a whistle, with formations and roll calls. We worked from darkness to darkness, with German guards watching and speeding us with curses and beatings. At night, when we returned back to the barracks, we fell on wooden benches and couldn't move a muscle.

At night we were locked up and tightly guarded. The hours were long with talk about the forest. We would have to flee. The Germans might kill all those who had worked for them at the last moment, before leaving. It was almost certain. They always did this. So we had to flee to the forest.

On the next day our watch was doubled at work, and in the camp: somebody had probably babbled and informed on us.

I wasn't planning to flee from Krasnei. I didn't want to leave my wife, daughter and parents behind. I decided to go back to Lida, whatever it would take, and from there escape to the forest. This was arranged by paying 50 golden rubles to the commandant's Jewish assistant. I had no money, so Yosef Gurvits gave me a loan. After two days, we left for Lida, escorted by an armed convoy. Our guards told us that their orders were to bring us back to Krasnei in 3 days.

I made plans how not to return, to leave Lida for the forests with my entire family. I knew that nobody would help me and the Yudenrat would only interfere.

I found out accidentally that a German team had arrived in order to repair the Lida power station, the engine shipyard, and the main warehouse, and they needed electricians. I went over to their camp. The Russian workers told me that the commander was a cruel man who liked to beat up everyone who seemed not to be working hard enough. I decided to apply for the job anyway, because it was the only way to stay in Lida with my wife and child.

I came in and showed my diplomas. I was ordered to stretch and connect a thick wire. After I succeeded in this test the camp commander went to the district commander and arranged a work permit for me.

Thus, I stayed in Lida.

When the time came for me to go back to Krasnei, the Yudenrat saw this as a good opportunity to get rid of me, but again this didn't work out for them.

Later I found out that Mendel Benyakonski was taken back to Krasnei, he took his family with him in order to stay together, and they were all killed when the Germans eliminated the camp.

I prepared an escape plan. I used to discuss it with Zerah Arluk, who at my request worked as my assistant. After some time Zerah disappeared: he had joined the partisans. My commander said to me:

“You are a good worker, but if you even only think about the partisans, we'll kill you like a dog.”

From that day on he always picked on me. Suddenly, I became personally responsible for all malfunctions and problems, even when it was obvious that someone else was to blame. One day a water leveler disappeared, he ordered me, as the team leader and in charge of the equipment, to return the leveler by 2pm. I ran to town to buy a similar leveler with my own money, but it took time to find one and I returned to the camp at 2.30pm. For being late, he punched my face with the leveler. My face was covered with blood. He then attacked me with all of his huge body, threw me on the ground, and kicked me with his heavy boots. Then he rolled me into the nearest trench and left.

When he met me later, he asked me why I had been beaten by him. I had no choice but to say that I was an hour late contrary to his orders.


How I Produced Weapons

Our conditions, and my condition, became worse every day. This forced me to be thinking of a solution, to hurry up and do something. It was known that in the forest you had to bring a gun in order to be accepted. But how does one obtain a gun?

Sitting across from me in the German kitchen was a pile of old weaponry. It winked at me. The biggest problem was to how to carry the barrel. The other parts were not a problem: they were small. For a barrel they would murder. One day I took courage to approach the Jews that were sorting the pile and asked if I could choose a gun barrel. They were scared. The Germans watched them from the window from time to time. Eventually they agreed. They went away for a couple of minutes and I found what I was looking for. I tied the barrel with a wire to my neck, hid it under my coat, and returned to the ghetto in mortal danger, while my heart pounded – did they notice something? Did the barrel peek out of my coat and had somebody noticed?

The handle was made for me by my brother Meshulam. The rest I brought piece by piece. I lived through dangerous days while building the gun. I polished the parts and built my precious weapon.

Meanwhile there were rumors in the ghetto about groups of Jews preparing to leave for the forest. People obtained pistols and rifles. The youth escaped and their numbers lessened. Married couples still stayed. There was an atmosphere of a double underground, [Tr. Note: against Nazis and] against the Yudenrat. Asher was afraid of the consequences “if they find out”, because people had vanished. The partisans from the forests who came to ghetto from time to time to smuggle people out, were opposed by the Yudenrat. I waited anxiously for a good opportunity. I didn't want to leave without my family.

There were more and more rumors of partisan actions. One morning we came to work and found the shipyard totally blown up by a worker during the night. He had left a mine and fled to the forest. Everyone at work whispered around, but the secret was out – the town was in partisan hands.

Each day the lack of workers grew. The Germans were terrified. Someone spread a rumor that there would be a hunt, the ghetto would be surrounded, and only the workshop workers would remain after all the rest had been deported. Immediately, I with two other Jews, ran to the nearest grove, my brother took my wife and child to hide in the workshop behind an airplane that he was working on.

While in hiding I was making plans to return to the ghetto on the next day, so as to leave as soon as possible alone and to come back for them later. I didn't believe that I would be staying alive for long in the forest. I only knew that I would somehow take revenge on the Nazis. On the next day we sent one of ours to check out what had happened in the ghetto, when he came back telling us that nothing had changed, we went back there that same day.


With Bielsky's Squad

Out to the Forest

After a discussion with my wife, we decided that I would leave alone first, and later I'd come back when I could to take the family. At 11pm, 45 people left, led by Manski, a partisan who came to collect people.

On our way we passed a streaming river. When we approached Raselki[2] the dogs in the village started to bark. The whole village was settled by Nazi Germans. The situation became dangerous. We had to hurry up so we continued walking until 2am when we came to a grove: we laid down on the ground and fell asleep exhausted.

Towards evening we renewed our walk and approached the Neman River in the dark. There, a Christian coordinator waited for us and led us across the river where we approached our goal.

The forest was so well camouflaged that you couldn't tell that the headquarters were in that place. On our way we came across a Jewish horseback rider and we knew we had arrived. We approached the place carefully, alongside the road, in order not to leave trails. Over the hill we discovered the partisan camp. It was a dense settlement, a real city, and we were amazed how everything was disguised under the ground.

There were numerous huts arranged in carefully planned rows, a kitchen, weaponry workshops, trenches.

Our arrival made some of the residents happy, but most of them showed signs of unwillingness. We heard various remarks:

“We don't need more people!”

“The new arrivals will bring trouble on us!”

In a couple of hours I had already realized what was going on here.

This group was mostly people from Navaradok, their wives raised their hands as if sensing a coming disaster. It was obvious that they were not interested in revenge. All they wanted was to outlive the Holocaust, not to stand out, to stay in hiding with as little noise and relocation as possible.

Luckily, the Bielski brothers took charge. The greatest of the brothers was the oldest – Tuvye– who never stopped trying to pull people out of the ghettos, with a thought in his heart to save as many Jews as possible from certain death. At that time rescuing Jews was his main purpose in life. In this matter he didn't listen to anyone, not even to his family. This made a great impression on us.

In the end we all stood in line and Tuvye inspected us and our weapons personally. Then we were assigned to different divisions. In the following days we trained a lot and went out to actions.


Tuvye Bielski


I Go to Bring My Wife

Weeks passed and I started thinking of ways to bring my family. I discussed it with my commander, and he encouraged me, but he didn't allow me to bring the baby. It would be undesirable to put the group in danger because of a crying baby. I decided to bring over my wife, and baby save the baby only later. I didn't want to leave her with Christians for money, like many others did. At first the commander wouldn't let me leave at all, not even to bring my wife. He told me to wait, but when he saw I persisted he agreed that someone else from the squad would go to Lida and bring her back with him. The man made me a promise. I waited impatiently for the escort person. A week passed and he didn't appear, and the rumors coming from Lida ghetto were horrible. I decided to go myself whatever the outcome. Assael, the commander's brother, helped me with this and eventually I was allowed to go.

As darkness fell we, three guys, left for Lida ghetto. On our way we passed thick groves, proceeded carefully, and suddenly heard human voices in one of the groves. We hid and waited to see who was talking. An hour passed. Then we heard that the approaching voices were speaking Yiddish. We went out to meet them. They were happy to see us and told me that my wife was with them. Our reunion was tinged with sadness. My wife told me about the terrible things happening in the ghetto, and the thought of our baby left behind there was hard.

We were so busy talking that we didn't notice that we had been separated from the group. As the two of us continued, I lost the way and we found ourselves heading towards the Germans. I tried not to hide my fear from my wife as I continued and she followed. Suddenly from afar I saw a man with a gun standing at a checkpoint. I realized we were in mortal danger. I grabbed my wife with one hand, the gun with the other hand, and took to the opposite direction. We jumped into a trench along the Lida–Navaradok road and proceeded further from there.

The trip was hard. We were so tired and tense. At any moment another obstacle could appear. We had to crouch, lie, and wait. On the way, when we were already close to the camp, we came across some people and we heard the gun being made ready to shoot. Somehow we recognized each other as Jews and we were saved from death.

Apparently, a Jew with his child, because of exhaustion, had stayed behind the group on the way to our camp, and now they too were saved from a terrible mistake. I took them along with us and brought them to our camp.


Activities at the Camp – the Baby

With my wife now in the camp, I was able to dedicate time to important camp activities.

First I was appointed a rider–guard. I began to explore the surrounding road network, the paths, and the trails in the forest. Later I was ordered to take charge of four watch posts. I was in charge of watch shifts and of obtaining information from surrounding farmers. I had to check on matters in the nearby town of Navaradok, to see whether the Germans were planning to hunt for us Jews who had dared to escape their claws. I used to send Christians to town to check the situation in the ghetto: the Jews there were in urgent need of rescue.

With every arrival of new people to the camp, their entry had to be secured to ensure that the Germans hadn't followed.

One time, on such tour with my people we heard machine guns and sounds of explosions. I left them behind and proceeded to check it out. As I saw that our positions were not harmed, I went back and reported to command. During the short duration of these shootings, the commanders had spread out and hidden all the camp's residents: the camp was completely deserted. I found only Tuvye, with a few of his people, walking around the headquarters. They were worried and sent me out to bring more accurate information. The shooting had lasted for too long.

I went in the direction of the shootings. From farmers I learnt that the Germans were nervous when passing by the forest and would shoot at and explode everything, to scare away the partisans. I decided to continue, and in Ostrovlya I was told the same thing. Only then did we return to the camp and did matters cool down. The camp people were returned to their places and life continued.

My wife didn't stop bothering me about the baby. She almost accused me of forgetting about the baby in favor of my work. The truth is that I couldn't bring her to the camp. The high command wouldn't allow it, and rightfully so. I also couldn't find any Christians who would agree to take her in, even for a large sum of money. It was too early to bring her from the ghetto: the Germans we planning a major attack on us, and the situation was dangerous.

Anyhow, we had to move our camp because too many Christians knew about its position. We moved to a grove near Zurvelnik,[3] where we found neglected partisan trenches, and we stayed there. On the next day our exploration unit had a face–to–face encounter with the Germans near the village. They opened fire on us. We barely escaped from them, went back to the camp, and had to leave there as soon as possible. The Germans stayed behind in Zurvelnik searching for us, and burned several houses along with their residents for having cooperated with the partisans.

Our new camp was in a young birch forest, and from there we continued our raids, watch shifts, etc.


I Go to Lida Ghetto

The rumors from the ghetto were horrific. It was obvious that the end was near. Many people from the camp went to the ghetto to try and save their relatives. Now I also decided to go to the ghetto to bring our girl and members of our families. When I went for Tuvye's permission to go, a huge argument started. People said the Germans would discover us, that children would endanger the camp, that new people would be a liability, and that we didn't have provisions for additional people. Here Tuvyeh displayed his character to the full extent: he clapped his fist on the table and said furiously:

“We are here to create a place for Jews fleeing from ghettos. We came here not to save our skins but to save Jews, to make possible for them to live later on. I don't want to hear a word. Meir, go and bring your girl, and bring as many Jews as you can. You hear, Shmerkovich! Bring, bring as many as possible.”

I took Leybke with me, a great fellow, and we went away equipped with pistols.

In a village near Lida we found several of our men who hadn't succeeded in entering Lida and who had come back here to wait. One of them, Yakov, even got killed trying to enter the ghetto. We decided to try anyway. We took the way around behind the airport. We noticed a German patrol coming across our way. We hid on an upper floor and waited till darkness, then approached the ghetto via the Raselki[4] Farm. Near the stream behind the bushes we saw German police and the well–guarded ghetto. Horses were grazing, probably belonging to the commandant. The horse groom was a Jew. He cursed one of the horses in Yiddish. We approached him with our pistols pointed at him. He got a bit scared. We called him from behind the bushes to tell us what was going on in the ghetto and to help us go inside. He was very afraid to stay with us and even to talk to us, but we calmed him down.

He was a barber. Leybke knew him. He said his mind wasn't clear. I saw it when he walked beside the horses murmuring a song as if nothing horrible were going on around him.

He wouldn't even listen of helping us into the ghetto. We tried to do it ourselves, but German guards were constantly patrolling around the ghetto, the gates were tightly guarded.

The day was coming to an end, and we thought about grabbing two horses and going back to the forest, but we didn't do it.

On second thought we decided to spend the night in the field, and in the morning when Jews went out to labor, to try and enter mixed into the crowd. When morning came the horses were going to the stream to drink water. We asked the groom to let us stay as grooms, to approach the stream with them, and then cross the bridge and go into the ghetto.


I Enter the Ghetto and Take Jews to the Forest

The ghetto was empty. I knocked on one of the windows and a woman peeked out to say that by the orders of the Yudenrat she wouldn't let any forest man in. I was appalled, but I didn't want to argue with her. I pretended to be someone from the ghetto and made my way straight to my mother's house. In a minute the news of my arrival spread through the ghetto. Friends and relatives came to see me, the Yudenrat men came to tell me that they'd help me go out of the ghetto as long as I promised not to take any people with me. I promised them, but I sent my brother–in–law Chaim Eli to tell 40 people to prepare to leave at 12pm.

During the day I tried to persuade my families to go with me, with no success. My brother Meshulam said that he, as a worker in the workshops would be able to save them. He also had a gun and at the last moment he'd escape and join us. My father wandered around the room with the baby in his arms, tears flowing from his eyes. It was his first grandchild, and who knew how long the separation might last–– maybe forever.

My wife's parents agreed to let me take their son Chaim–Elya with me.

The day went by, filled with farewells and the most terrible decision–making. It was hard for me to leave my dear parents behind, but my dear father made it easier for me and said:

“My only request is that you avenge them in full, as much as they deserve!”

Towards evening a messenger came to tell me that everything was ready. Between 11pm and 1am the Germans would be partying, the gate would be unwatched, and we could leave–– the people were ready.

When the hour came, I tied my little girl with a peasant's scarf to my back and we went out. As agreed, the people were waiting at the stables near the gate. At that same moment Jewish policemen appeared, headed by the Jewish commandant. He declared that he would not let the people go out. In the end they agreed to 20 people, because I insisted and threatened them:

“Jews want to save themselves from mortal danger and you are standing in their way. We won't accept you in the forest when you decide to come. Let people defend themselves instead of dying like fettered sheep.”

It had its effect and we went out.

We walked fast during the entire night. People took turns in carrying the babies. The patrol lead us. We had 14 guns and several pistols with us.

Early in the morning we reached Shtsigli,[5] a friendly village and partisan area. We met a partisan squad there from the “Iskra” Regiment. They told us the Germans had conducted a raid on our camp, there were casualties, and the whole battalion had broken into groups.

That shocked me. Who may have been killed? Who knew where to look for them? Anyway we had to make an enquiry. I sent five people out to look for members of the camp–– they found some.

We learnt that Bielski's people retreated to Naliboki Fields, that my wife was alive and she was with Assael Bilski. With no trouble we reached a safe place to rest. We fell to the ground and fell asleep, my daughter sleeping beside me the sleep of persecuted partisans.

In the morning we started our walk again. In the afternoon we came across Tuvye's people. The police were after us. Danger was following us. We went deeper into the forest. The sun was burning. From time to time the baby got thirsty and cried, adding to the confusion. While waiting for others, I crated shade from the scarf for her, but she wouldn't calm down. She crawled out to the sun and cried, and tore our hearts. She screamed: Mommy, Mommy, Mommy. It was the only time in my life that I cried from my heart. I was washed with tears – What should I do with my daughter? How could I be a mother to her?

And the doubts crawled in:

“Maybe her mother is not among the living anymore?”


I Gave Away my Daughter to Strangers

Some women tried to calm her down with no result. The general depression was having its effect on the baby, and on all the babies.

There were two more babies in the squad and we were worried about what to do with them. We can't bring them to the forest, but where to leave them?

The parents of two other babies had money and belongings, so they'd probably find Christians. I had nothing so I doubted that I would find a solution for my little baby.

I had one small hope. In the “Iskra” squad there were people I knew, one of them being Zerah Arluk. They had connections with the neighbors, the local peasants, and I hoped they'd find me some peasant.

We went there, the children in the wagon, and us walking along. We reached a river. The water was deep so we put wooden boards on ladders and put the babies high up so they wouldn't get wet. The water covered the wheels. We walked close to the wheels in the deep water. We couldn't see what was awaiting us on the other bank. Suddenly we heard human voices. Shortly after we saw people in the water with their clothes tied to their heads [to keep them dry]. I recognized them. These were our people. They burst out in joy:

“Meir, your wife is alive and she is with us!”

When Carmela approached and saw her daughter and brother she burst out in tears. She handed me my rifle, which I had left with her before leaving for the ghetto. She had saved it during flight. Well, we had one more rifle.

Later on we parted ways. The babies' parents found adoptive families in the villages. I continued. I reached “Iskra” at sunrise, but no one could help me so I went back.

On my way I visited every remote farm looking for saviors for my daughter, but with no results. Meanwhile it became dark and the time was pressing us to hurry up and catch up with our squad. I was exhausted by the disappointing enquiries at every farm, but I thought of the fields, of the possible chases, the dangers awaiting the baby. I decided to make a last attempt, because I couldn't take care of the baby and also participate in the fighting.

My father's provision to “have revenge” burnt my soul. I wouldn't rest until finding a safe place for the baby.

We stayed for another day in Petri[6] village and I continued to search. In one of the backyards I saw a woman chopping wood, and that she wasn't experienced at this–at any moment she could hurt herself with the axe. I stopped to watch and she became embarrassed. I approached and told her about myself, and what I was looking for. I asked why there was no man to do this job.

I learned from her that her husband, ill for a long time, had passed away. She was very poor and helpless. I asked whether she could take care of my girl, for money. She stopped chopping. We entered the house. She said:

“I can't, dear. Because of poverty I gave my daughter to my mother. I'll give you a letter to her in the nearby village, she'll take her in. I am even ready to take my girl back, so the neighbors will think that yours is mine.”

She sat down to write the letter which took her too long, and I began to lose my patience.

The letter was long and begging, as if she was asking for her own daughter. It finished like this:

“Please make an effort, Mother. God will reward you and we'll survive the war.”

When Carmela read the letter with no mention of money, she couldn't believe our good luck.

And again we traveled, and again there were deep waters. When we reached one of the farms it was already evening. I entered one of the houses and said that I would like to stay overnight and we were very hungry.

In less than an hour a bowl with hot potatoes was on the table and also sour cream and pudding. The girl was given milk. The peasant spread straw on the floor and we lay down to sleep, keeping watching shifts.

In the morning I tried to find out where the woman that I was looking for lived. I left Carmela with the baby and the rest of the group, and I went alone to look for the woman. The houses were scattered far one from another. I had to pass a grove and a stream. I also lost my way and wandered for a while. When I saw the house and recognized it by description, I slowed down. I didn't want to go in and frighten the people. I hid in the grove and waited. A boy came out with sheep. He passed near me but didn't notice me. After him his father came out with a little boy. I went out from my hiding place. The Gentile got scared, but I calmed him down and gave him his daughter's letter. We sat down on a tree trunk. He read slowly. When he finished reading he asked me to wait while he went to ask his wife and daughter.

I waited for a long time. I won't forget that. Life and death decisions had to be made and who knew whether I would succeed. The waiting seemed endless. When he returned my heart beat like crazy: what if he said no. He said to bring the girl.

I ran as fast as I could to our people. I asked our host to take us with the wagon because it was a long way. He brought us to within 1 km from the savior. I let him go back with gratitude, took my people to the grove to wait for us, and the two of us with our baby went to the Gentile.

The house was poor. Our daughter fell asleep on the way, and the Gentile's wife took her and put her to bed. I took out from my pocket ten golden rubles and gave them to the peasant together with a suit that I had with me. I said:

“Believe me, this is all I possess. I'll bring more if I can.” She took the money from his hand and gave it back to me and said:

“Your trip will take long, you'll need it.”

Only after a long persuasion did they agree to take the money. Then my wife went to the sleeping baby, bent over her, and wept.

We said goodbye to our sleeping daughter. Who knew whether we'd see each other again.


Partisan Economy – Purpose and Means

The Naliboki situated near our camp area was totally razed: German revenge. As we found out, 400 Jews had been killed there in a battle against the Nazis. Who knows if this act of Jewish heroism is commonly known?

Our squad grew bigger every day. Our armed forces got bigger and stronger, and we became a force in the wide valley area. Jewish partisans used to go out in groups for sabotage missions, combat, raids on German patrols, and railway undermining.

The whole area of Navaredok and Ivia was full with our action groups. We were noticeable everywhere.

We were joined by partisans fleeing from Russian partisan groups, because of the anti–Semitism among the Russians.

Most of them were from the Lubchenka[7] area and survivors from ghettos.

We reached 800 in number and were expecting to grow more, causing a financial problem. Where would we find provisions for such numbers of people? We felt that the mere existence of those hundreds of people was equal in value to all the battles, and that both missions were mutually dependant. Meanwhile all the villages that had fed us had been destroyed: the Germans scorched them down to ash. The commander appointed me in charge of supplies and provision storage. I was relieved of combat service, but I was appointed a mission demanding frequent hard battles, and I experienced much difficulty and travail. The roads in the valleys were long and difficult, with wide swamps spread between villages. Movement was hard and slow and sometimes a village would not cooperate so we had to take it by force in order to obtain their provisions. It was a tough role, but the knowledge that the work would permit so many fighters to be revenged and lash back at the Germans made me feel better.

Near us passed the road to the frontline. We prevented Germans any possibility of bringing enforcement or supplies to soldiers on the front line. The movement of German forces in the area gradually decreased and the few remaining were heavily guarded.

More and more we felt that Germans closing in on us. They surrounded the villages supplying us with provisions, and tried different methods of search and siege.

Our situation was getting worse every day. My task became a real combat role. I had to sapper my path in order to get the required food. I was expected to fight any battle. My commander saw the supply mission as the most crucial one because it kept us alive and because it drew new forces to us and encouraged those who might otherwise be hesitant to flee to the woods. He also sent his brother out on supply missions. My scout was Yosef Kagan, resident of the area who knew all the surrounding roads and paths. I picked a farm near Berezhno.[8] This would be our resting place and storage place for obtained goods. In the evening we loaded everything on the wagons and took it via different roads to the camp.


Search and Siege

There was one occasion when I allowed myself to bring something to my daughter and her saviors. I was about 15km from them in Mishkovitsh.[9] I chose a strong horse. I packed provisions of pork and salt, veal, and leather, and departed. The road was very dangerous, but being so close to my baby I had to see and check on her.

We proceeded with great caution. We waited for nightfall to travel. When we approached Mishkovitsh we heard sounds of shooting. We waited in hiding, determined to enter the farm no matter what.

When it became quiet we continued, but the road was covered with stones and the sounds of horseshoes knocking on stone broke the silence. We were soon discovered and found ourselves under a rain of machine gun bullets. The horse got excited and burst into a gallop. Then we heard fire behind us and we knew that we had fallen into ambush.

When we managed to sneak out we went into the nearest farm and heard that the attack was part of a huge hunt – a plan to search the whole valley. I gave up the idea of seeing my daughter and ordered the Gentile to take us by side roads going in our direction. At half–way I let him go and warned him to keep his mouth shut. We reached our base farm, uploaded all the goods, and started for the camp.

I led a convoy of 12 wagons, filled with crops, sheep, cows and pigs. At the camp we found out that they had moved deeper into the swamp area.

The fear of the approaching hunt was mixed with joy at the sight of the quantity of goods we had brought with us, but it was still frightening. The latest rumors told of thousands of soldiers that the Germans had pulled from the frontline in order to eliminate us, and they were getting close.

We made hasty preparations. We divided into groups equipped with food rations. We didn't intend to fight a face–to–face battle. We decided to go deep into the impassable swamps and hang on there. The situation was tense. People became quiet and there was a depressing silence surrounding us. From time to time patrollers arrived on horses, whispered something to the commanders, and disappeared again. Those were hard hours of self–observation and character testing. The rumors were frightening and it was easy to fall into despair.

A day went by and we were staying on spot, alert and awake. When it became dark we fell asleep, tired and exhausted. In the middle of the night, cannon thunder exploded on us and bullets directed at us whistled by our ears. The commander ordered us to stay still and not to react until further order. Those were horrible unforgettable hours. We had elders and women with us, children and the sick. One's every thought was blurred with their desperate moans. A frightening sound of despair surrounded us, until one lost all hope. From time to time Russian and Jewish partisan groups arrived, their commanders held discussions with our commanders.

At night the artillery fire stopped and it seemed that the hunt was over. But in the morning the fire renewed as if pointed straight at us, as if they knew our exact location.

We had no choice but to move to another place. With us were two Jews from Naliboki, who were well acquainted with the grove and knew every path.

They led us by a winding road along flowing streams and hidden trenches. It was hard to watch the people who were carrying their exhausted children, with provision bags on their backs which were sometimes soaked with moisture and heavy. Those visions are carved in my memory forever: how the Jews walked to their way to salvation, carrying on their backs the future of our nation. I won't forget one widower especially, whose wife had been killed on a previous raid. He walked while carrying his two children – one on his back and one on his chest. We all moaned looking at him but couldn't help him. And he didn't ask for help, he didn't complain–– he wanted to bear his contribution to the nation alone.

We walked in water up to our chests, one behind another, in order not to leave a trail in aquatic vegetation. The chain of people was over 1km long and we walked for a whole day until reaching some dry land on which to lay down our exhausted bodies.

First we explored the surroundings to check out the place and ensure that it was well hidden. Meanwhile the shooting stopped and it became quiet.

We stretched out on the ground to have some rest when suddenly we heard urgent German voices. We realized they were in our previous camp and had collected the cows that we kept for the worst days, and now they belonged to the Germans.

We had to make a quick escape, our strength went out, and our despair grew. Even the commander was exhausted. Nevertheless we continued. We wanted to live; we wanted to save each other.

Towards evening we reached the ‘red hill’. It was covered with trees swept away by water, but we were so tired that we couldn't even feel on what we were sleeping.

In the morning after we ate only seeds, which had swelled up because they were soaked in the water together with us. The hunger and its consequences began to trouble us. We knew that we were under German siege and the only way to break it was to break through at any price.

We divided into groups of 50. The first to try and break through was Asael Bielski. I was next. I went out leading 55 men. We took extreme caution and reached a place not far from Lubtsch, where we ran into other partisans that made a temporary camp. We decided to take a rest there and to clean up in the nearby lake.

On our way we saw smoldering campfires, food leftovers, and cigarette butts. Those were signs of Germans being there before, and we assumed that we'd be left alone since the Germans were going in the opposite way.

Regretfully, the people felt free to rob the nearest village and take sheep and other provisions. While we were swimming naked in the lake we heard firing and the watch called us to take the defense. We were surrounded by the Polish police that protected the village. Under heavy fire we retreated, breaking in two groups, left that place and again found ourselves in terrible conditions. At least there were no casualties this time.


Our Russian Friends Rob Their Friends – I am Cut Off and in Command Against my Will

We continued our heavy pace for a day and a night until we found a safe place near a village called Chernovitsh.[10] We planned to make contact with the rest of our squad from and felt we would be safe there.

At 12pm we had a visit from Russian partisans, among them people armed with machine guns. We were glad to see them. We saw immediately that they were forest people like us. But we were surprised to see that from a distance they were pointing their guns at us. Several of them approached and demanded clothes and stuff. We refused to do that. I couldn't accept as fact that after all of our suffering from Germans we'd now become the victims of a robbery at the hands of partisans like us. I knew that there is no point in talking to Russian Gentile. I ordered my men to take battle positions, camp against camp.

It worked: they folded their guns and left.

It's important to mention, shamefully, that during the hunt, when we were divided into small groups, discipline was down and some groups effected robberies on others. Stronger groups took advantage of weaker ones and robbed them from head to toe. Especially active were the Russians groups, they lived from what they could rob from other ethnic groups.

We moved to another location and built a camp there. Our goal was to wait until our squad could reunite. Days went by and we started to take care of ourselves. We dug wells for common use. We dug underground shelter–huts, each for himself. We settled and looked for food, each in his own way.

This continued for a rather long time. As much as we were ready to use our force to fight the enemy and live, we were also ready to hang on and live.

On one quiet day we suddenly heard sounds of fire. We took distance from our small camp and hid in the bushes. When the fire stopped we sent our people to find out what had happened and they came back to tell that the Polish police had attacked a nearby village on pretense of its having collaborated with the partisans. They burnt it down and killed everyone with the only purpose of robbery and looting.

As commander of this camp I had to endure huge difficulties and take responsibility for those miserable Jewish souls and their safety. Among my people was a guy from Baksht, a professional engraver. He prepared for me a headquarters' stamp, and I was then able to send people to actions with “official” stamped papers. This was crucial at that time so as not to fall into the hands of other partisan groups. Everybody was suspicious. I made some orders in the group and we waited, preparing for the day when we might reunite with the rest of the squad.


A Painful Split in the Camp

In time people began to express discontent. Some thought that we shouldn't reunite–– better to live separately. I had information that the squad was situated in the Yasinov Forest and received orders to bring my people there, in order to renew the ambushes, the attacks against Germans, and the supply cut–offs. But people were exhausted, tired of battles and wandering. They wanted to settle down and build a life without danger and suffering.

One Shmuel Levine from Soletchnik suggested that it would be better for us to stay in the surroundings of his town, to hide with the help of good neighbors, and to lead an easier existence. He succeeded in convincing some young men from Lithuania. He also tried to convince me.

I was immunized against such arguments. First of all, my daughter was in the Ivia area; second, I never saw a purpose in life without battle. Also I didn't believe that we'd survive by just biding our time. In the short time left I wanted to fight the Germans, to help Jews survive and live. In my humble position, with my poor means, I wanted to do all I could to save Jews until my last day. My father's legacy was always with me.

After a month, we left our temporary home in the camp under darkness. Silence fell all around–– nobody spoke. We walked with heavy thoughts in our minds: perseverance, willingness to fight, our existence as humans against the Nazi beasts.

We arrived in Chernovitsh. Here Levine began his propaganda again. I tried to stop him and said:

“Remember the slaughter that our neighbors performed against us in Voronova and Soletchnik?”

He wouldn't listen. He succeeded in convincing several men. We came to a crossroad where we had to separate. We went left and they turned right. The separation had a depressing effect.

With him also went Berke and Gotlieb Levine from Voronova. The night was dark with only sounds of barking dogs. Somebody said:

“Lucky dogs, they have a home, we don't.”

On our way we passed near Mishkovitsh, the place where my daughter was staying. I couldn't help it–– I had to visit her. We went, 5 people and Carmela with us. We walked very cautiously and when we approached the door we heard a baby's voice. We recognized it immediately. When Carmela opened the door the girl was startled. She didn't see her as her ma. She ran away from her to the old peasant woman:

“Mama––” as if looking for protection from the strange woman.

Carmela wept. After some hours Carmela succeeded with tricks known only to mothers in persuading the girl to come to her arms, and I also had a chance to touch her. The girl was covered with wounds, had roughly cut hair, and was as wild as all Gentile children. We knew and felt that the woman was taking care of the girl as well as she could, but we were also sad to see the girl being so Gentile–ish. Carmela cried all the way back.

Back at the camp I gave a full report of what we had gone through. On the same day all the commanders were called to the head commander. He informed us that the situation required that we split up again, and continue to conduct ourselves separately until middle of next month.

This time I led a company of 40 men. I took the road to the Khapinva[11] Forests. Our base took in some Jews from Russian partisan groups who had fled because of anti–Semitism. They spoke of their Russian friends as being enormous anti–Semites.

I invited them to stay with us and later to reunite with our squad. On the next day they brought with them some more guys from Vasilishok, experienced partisans. We formed a strong unit of 60 fighters, ready and organized.


The Russian Press to Leave the Elders Behind

On the 15th we returned to the squad base situated in the forests of Zhuravelniki. During our absence the group had grown to 1,000 people or more, joined by survivors of other squads tired of being pursued. It appeared that our squad had succeeded in escaping pursuit without casualties. Also joining us were fighters who had escaped from their brothers–in–arms, the Russians, who hated Jews more than they hated Germans. The Russians didn't like it that our squad had become so big, that it had attracted people, that it consisted of a mixed population of young and old, single and married, that it was always prepared for battle and for life according to Holy Jewish Law. All of that upset them.

The headquarters of various partisan groups kept constant communication and open flow of information. Under orders of the Russian command, pressure was put on Bielsky to divide his squad between fighters and non–fighters, to break into groups, and to attach to other squads.

Bielsky didn't give in to the pressure. All he cared about were Jewish lives. He wanted to save and prolong the lives of the old and the weak at any price, only because they were Jews. Maybe he also had a personal ego motive, like some have thought, but in any event he stood by his principles with great perseverance and thus became the savior and guardian of unprotected Jews.

The decision was then given to Platonov, the highest Russian partisan commander in Belarus.

He decided to separate fighters from dependents. All fighters were taken under the command of Platonov, all the families were left under the command of Tuvya Bielski, at his base in the Naliboki valley.

Then began the arguments on names. Here too the Russian made the decision. He made a detailed list of names by which the people were divided.

According to this list, I and Carmela were assigned to the fighters. I was pleased. I wanted to fight and to have revenge, my blood boiled, I was eager to fight. But Carmela declared:

“The girl!”

I decided to stay with Bielski. There I'd be able to see the girl, to help her guardian, to ensure her safety. I stayed with Bielski, and there were other fighters who stayed with him rather than join the Russians.

Tuvye appointed me in charge of food and supplies. The relocation to Naliboki demanded new supplies. Tuvya gave me 15 young fighters and a list of villages that had collaborated with the Germans during their big pursuit and gave me permission to take “everything we need by any means”.

I concentrated everything my attention on the place where the squad was supposed to stop on the way to Naliboki. In the evening I and Joseph went to several villages near Ivia but they had already been robbed by the Russian partisans, and we returned empty–handed.

We didn't want to go back to the base empty–handed. This had never happened to me before. We stopped for rest in a nearby forest and talked it over. The only option was Lazduny. It was a rich village, but of uncertain loyalty, and extremely dangerous. Lazduny was full of German police and the battle would be very hard. But we decided to go.

We parked the wagons in a grove, about 1km from Lazduny, and waited for darkness. We went out after 2 hours. As we passed a tar factory we saw a great fire that lit up the sky in a frightening way. We noticed that it was at a distance so we continued on our way. The entrance road was carved with stones and the wagons made a loud noise in the silence of the night. We proceeded slowly.

We approached the first house. It was covered with darkness and silent. Suddenly the dog began barking wildly. We were afraid of some reaction, but there was no time to waste – we surrounded the house and knocked on the window. Nobody replied, but we knew that people were inside because earlier we had seen a dim light. We persisted. Finally the owner came out, scared. We asked him about the situation in the village. He said that there was a stationary force of Polish police there, and in the afternoon Germans were there.

I had no time to waste. I ordered him to give me his son to guide us in the village between the houses. It was his first encounter with a partisan. He fell to my feet, kissed my boots, and said he'd give me all his cows and possessions if only I would leave him his son. I noticed that he was against partisans, which is why he was so afraid, thinking we had came to kill him.

His son went with us. We left a guide near his house to ensure against intrusions. We went in the direction of the center of the village. The plan was to start from the other end and come back to the wagons full. I divided people into two groups and we began the operation.

At that same moment I saw a movement of people, about 20 of them. We fell on the ground. I waited for them to come close and called in Russian:

“Who are you?”

They didn't reply. They instantly fell into a nearby trench. I demanded that one of them come over and identify himself, otherwise I'd open fire. I saw one of them walking on shaking feet. We stood up and came to talk to him. He told us they were part of a partisan group named after Stalin. To my question what they were doing in the village and where the rest were, he replied:

“They are robbing the village.”

This aroused my suspicion: partisans never talked like that. I approached him. He didn't wear a hat. He looked like a military man pointing a machine gun at me. I wanted to grab his gun but I was afraid that his friends would start to shoot, and they held machine guns against our miserable rifles.

I ordered him to turn around and walk to the nearest farm. I was planning to shoot him there. My group stayed in place. I took with me only Volf'ke and Shlom'ke Boyarsky. He approached the house and opened the door. A bright light came out through the opening. We saw that the house was filled with policemen. He turned around immediately and opened fire. One of us was hurt and fell down. In a moment I recovered and retreated to the fence. I fired back and escaped, and ran further away between jumps and falls while we were followed by heavy fire.

I thought that Shlomo Boyarsky was running along with me and the one to fall was Velf'ke. I continued running when it became obvious it wasn't Shlom'ke, but it was one of ours, someone else. I found myself without a guide, without connection to my people. The burning fire lit my way and led me to the starting point. At the tar factory we confiscated a horse and a wagon and forced the owner to take us to the next village, Chernovitsh.[12] When dawn came up on the next day we let the peasant go.

At 12 we all met at the rendezvous point. Only Shlomo Boyarsky was missing. I sent a peasant to find out what had happened. He came back to tell that there were about 100 policemen in the village, and that Shlomo was the one who had fallen from the Polish bullet.

We were devastated. Shlom'ke had joined us after deserting from the Russians. He was a nice guy, a good friend, and a bold fighter.

We found our squad near Berezhno. Tuvye wasn't there and there was no one to report to. I dropped on an empty wagon and fell asleep.


We Fight and Wreak Revenge

In the morning several guys went out to Lida to visit the ghetto. They planned to retrieve clothes because they had lost everything during the pursuit.

We continued walking and came to the camp of Kessler and his people from Naliboki. They were well provisioned. The nearest village, Kaltsitsh,[13] had been burnt down by the Germans, all its people murdered, while all the crops were still in the fields.

Tuvye received orders to take the squad into the valley and he himself was to report to the regional headquarters near Navaredok. He didn't go alone. He took several fighters with him. He was determined to bring more Jews to the camp, especially fighters.

I was appointed as Kessler's deputy and was given orders to collect potatoes, as many as possible, then to dig pits in the forest and bury the potatoes for winter. I was in charge of the work. I organized the family men, assisted them, and we buried thousands of pounds of potatoes. Tuvye returned with a large number of Jewish fighters, expanding our squad. Our military actions became larger and more frequent. Now we sabotaged trains, destroyed bridges, and mined roads. I was attached to the fighting knights under the command of Asael Bielsky. My life became meaningful; it was nice to join in actions with these guys.

Later on we went out for actions far–off in the Lida–Navaredok area.

Once, we found out that a convoy of 30 German trucks was on its way to Lida to fetch supplies. We went out the night before and mined the road in three different places, one of them under a small bridge close to the town.

With dawn, the first car went up in the air with all its passengers. They were gone without a trace. The Germans presumed that the first mine was also the last time and continued on their way. Very soon more cars exploded together with the Nazis in them.

It was a great day for me. About 120 beasts were wiped from the earth on that day, and the feelings of revenge raised our spirits.

Sometimes we would place mines without success. The commander sent me and Yehuda to find out why. At 12 we carefully approached the mined area. There were no German movements here so we felt safe. When we approached a drainage trench we suddenly saw Germans running around us and we had no possibility of retreat. They looked as if they were trying to catch us alive with only 50 meters between us. I raised my pick and broke from my hiding. They sent a rain of bullets after me. It was a miracle that I was not hurt, that my friend wasn't hurt, and also our horses. We escaped through the farm to the forest. The horses were pulling us forward with their bellies almost touching the ground. We were saved.

On the next day we passed the same place. The peasants saw us and crossed themselves: they began to believe in resurrection.

We heard from them that the Germans had discovered all our mines, dismantled them, and prepared an ambush for us.

From then on we began an ambush and counter–ambush game. We concentrated on undermining trains, though the Germans would dig bunkers along the railways and guard them. We acted at nights, improving from bunker to bunker. We disguised the mines in such way that they walked on them without noticing while a single nail on the rail could trigger the mine to explode at the lightest touch of a wheel.


In September 1943 the Lida Ghetto Was Liquidated

Information arrived that the Germans were taking the Jews of the Lida ghetto to an unknown destination. Some dug bunkers and trenches leading to outside the ghetto and fled, some jumped out of moving trains and came to us. From Voronova there came only one family, cantor Konopke's. Nobody came from our families. My heart was broken, mostly for my younger brother Meshulam who didn't come although he had a rifle and had promised to run away when the moment arrived. Did he decide to stay with our parents? Maybe he tried to help them by sacrificing himself… and he was only twenty?

Later we found out that all of them were taken to Majdenek.

We were also joined by Jews from Navaredok–– they too had prepared a trench in advance. They turned out to be the only survivors from the Navaredok ghetto. Our squad had several workshops serving us and the other partisans in the area. We also had a hospital.

Our camp looked like a town, with streets, a hospital, defense trenches, a carpentry shop, a shoemaking workshop, a large bakery for baking bread, a leather factory and a bath house.

My greatest pride, then and today, is that our camp accepted elders too, who were saved thanks to the shelter they found in our camp. We far exceeded 1000 people, and even exceeded the first hundred of the second thousand. We took it upon ourselves to care for those who were unable to fight or work. They were useful for us in workshops and they could continue to live with the feeling of being needed.

The fact that we were a town, that we were well organized, that we appreciated life and the rescuing, made the Russians angry. Our neighbors, and brothers–in–arms in a battle of life or death, looked for every way to divide us, to use us for their needs, while we wanted only two things, which were actually three things: revenge by destroying and weakening our enemies, but more importantly to save as many Jewish lives as possible so they could live and defeat the enemy, increase the nation, and win the eternity of Israel.

We stood against three enemies – the Germans, the Polish nationalists and the Russian partisans, and the last ones knew where to find us. In the forest they were our most dangerous enemy. I remember their rifles pointed at my face many times, each time they had coveted something in my possession: my horse, my weapon, or my clothes. This was the main difference between us and the Gentiles. Their national conscience was so shallow that on certain days it disappeared completely, while ours was constantly growing and continuous.

They used to steal our food on its way to us. I remember numerous fights with them when they tried to steal our supplies as I made my way to the camp.

They were afraid to travel to dangerous locations, to steal from deserted places, or to collect left–over crops. They waited for us to do the job and then tried their courage on us. More than once they smashed my head for a piece of bread, but the rescue missions strengthened me, and they didn't prevail.

Once, during the big pursuit, I and my friends were traveling in search of a new location for our camp. We were near Lugomovitsh [Tr. Note: Lugomovichi] when we came upon a group of Russian partisans. We were armed with our best weapons, Thank God–– a machine gun, several rifles and revolvers. At that time those were our greatest treasure, and they wanted to take them away. They outnumbered us by far. They surrounded us. They picked on me and a huge fight started. Finally they took out the bolt from the machine gun, threw me on the ground, and beat me with the gunstock. They stunned me… and then they got what they had come for, and they took my old watch from my back pocket.

They also took our squad's seals and later used them to forge facts in our names. They robbed, boycotted, and stained us with blood. They took my shirt and belt, but I didn't let go of my weapon. When they left my friends took me to the nearest spring, cleaned me up, and the river became red from my blood, spilled for a good cause. My head was swollen and heavy, my eyes narrow, and my whole body looked like one huge blueish bruise.

After a month, a commission arrived to allegedly investigate the incident; all its members were Russians. I don't know whose initiative this was. I was sleeping in the wagon at that moment, tired after the last mission. They woke me up. I came over and recognized the one who had attacked. I wanted to avenge but Tuvye held me back. The commission sat on a tree stump. They made a good impression, but when they asked to tell what had happened, I said:

“Ask him, he knows all the details.”

And I left demonstratively.

Only then did I tell Tuvye the details of the incident. Who initiated that investigation, and what was its outcome, I don't know till this day.

Jewish partisans serving in Russian squads deserted from them in increasing numbers. Their stories about active anti–Semitism frightened us. Each day our numbers grew, and each day I thought and said:

“Who knows what would be the fate of the Jews who had escaped from Nazis. Probably they would be the victims of other Christian barbarians of different kinds, their brothers–in–arms.

And my thoughts were right: our squad and our actions for the sake of rescuing Jews, then became a shelter for those victims as well.

There were many cases where Jews who managed to escape from the Germans were then killed by their brothers–in–arms. There were many cases where Jewish partisans were robbed and left behind to die from hunger and scarcity. There were many cases where Jews were murdered by their neighbors or by Russian partisans.

Those thoughts and memories increase my appreciation for Tuvye Bielski. He was a man opposed by many of his friends, when he decided to save all those who came looking for shelter. They thought that a large group would make our movement slower and endanger the whole squad.

Tuvye didn't give in to pressure. His warm Jewish heart was eager to save as many Jewish lives as possible. Tuvye also initiated the rescue of Jews by smuggling them out of ghettos, and this is his greatest achievement.


Exodus from the Forests

A new day arrived. Russian marines and wireless devices announced the defeat of the Nazis, and hope returned. I received a letter from my daughter's rescuer stating that his situation was becoming worse, that neighbors had found out that the girl was Jewish, and that we must come as quickly as possible to take her.

I took a strong horse, a wagon, and several men, and I hit the road. I took some food for my rescuer in order to help him with his bad situation. As we approached we stopped at the nearest forest, and my wife and I went to the farmer's house. When we entered and approached her, our girl was frightened of us and took a distance. We tried to coax her with different stuff we had brought with us, but it didn't help. It took a long time before she agreed to come with us.

It was time for separation. Our rescuers burst into tears. It was hard for them. The mother followed the wagon by foot for several kilometers and cried all the way.

“The house will be empty; how shall we continue without her?”

Meanwhile the retreat of the German army continued. There came orders from Moscow to undermine all their retreat routes. We were ordered to act in the Navaredok area. It took us a whole day to prepare the mines via self–production. All the electrical parts were prepared by me, together with Leybke Federman.

We traveled under darkness. We were 11 people led by Asael Belsky. After a 24–hour ride we came near Stankevitsh, Tuvye's birthplace. We laid mines all the way and now climbed a hill to look at our work site.

In the morning we watched the explosions. We saw the Germans crashing and our hearts we full with joy of revenge. But immediately we were surrounded by Germans and had no choice but to retreat to the swampy area. Asael was familiar with the area so we hid in the swamps for two days, and then sneaked out.

In the camp we found out about a new danger. The Germans, on the way of retreat, were attacking partisan camps and villages, and robbing food and clothes. On one occasion they attacked our camp at a moment when there were not enough fighters on site–– there were victims. It was extremely sorrowful for those who died so near to salvation. Our consolation was that we had managed to catch some of the Nazi killers alive. We conducted a trial before some of the victims and we let some of the elders, like Shmuel Pupko, carry out the verdict and feel the sweet taste of revenge.

The Russians were approaching and we were ordered to leave the forest. The forests were full of fleeing Germans. There were about 1,200 surviving Jews among us on these last days. We prepared for the journey. I happened to be amongst the last to leave. The journey was for only 1km, but it was very dangerous. The forest was full of enemies. Our moving–camp proceeded slowly. All along the way were scattered bodies of dead German soldiers. We had to step on them in order to get through. The journey proceeded in full silence. Mourning and sadness overwhelmed us. We knew that we had been saved, but we didn't know why or what for. We didn't know where to go, nor where our home would be now.

After several days we arrived at Navaredok. The site of the ghost town made us shiver.

The partisan commanders were ordered to give away their young fighters to the Red Army, who would send them to the frontier to continue in bitter battle. There was an undercurrent of anti–Semitism in this order: we knew that some wanted to disguise the part played by Jews in this war and the victory, and the way to disguise this would be to send them out to their deaths in the battlefield.

Here Tuvye showed his utmost Jewish spirit. He gathered us together, and at his own risk told us what was being planned, and at the end he said:

“Guys, if you want to live, split and run in any direction.”

Tuvye Bielsky created opportunities to save many Jews in the forests, but his last act of rescue was uttering this one sentence. It should never be forgotten that if his Russian friends had known about this, he would have paid with his life.


Editor's notes
  1. In the original text, the surname is spelled: mem–aleph–vov–lamed–kuf–nun–yud–kuf. Return
  2. This town has not yet been identified. In the original text the spelling is: resh–samekh–lamed–kuf–yud. Return
  3. Possibly the town know today as Survilishki. In the original text the spelling is: zayen–vov–resh–beyz (or veyz)–lamed–nun–yud–kof. Return
  4. In the original text the spelling is: resh–samekh–lamed–kuf–yud. Return
  5. This town has not yet been identified. In the original text the spelling is: shin–tsadek–yud–gimel–lamed–yud. Return
  6. Possibly the town know today as Petrovichi. In the original text the spelling is: pey (or fey)–tes–resh–yud. Return
  7. Probably the town known today as Lubcha. In the original text the spelling is: lamed–vov–beyz–yud–tsadek–geresh–nun–kuf–hey. Return
  8. This town has not yet been identified. In the original text the spelling is: beys–resh–zayen–nun–hey. Return
  9. This town has not yet been identified. In the original text the spelling is: mem–yud–shin–kuf–vov–veyz (or beyz)–yud–langer tsadek. Return
  10. This town has not yet been identified, possibly Chernevichi. In the original text the spelling is: tsadek–geresh–resh–nun–vov–beyz (or veyz)–yud–langer tsadek. Return
  11. This forest has not yet been identified. In the original text the spelling is: khes–aleph–pey (or fey)–yud–nun–tsvey vov–hey. Return
  12. See note 10. Return
  13. This town has not yet been identified. In the original text the spelling is: kuf–lamed–tsadek–yud–samekh–tsadek–geresh. Return


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