by Tzemah Krum
Translated by Emma Karabelnik
In Vilne Province, near the main road to Lida, surrounded by woods and near the river, lay a tiny town called The Great Soletchnik, with its 30 or so Jewish families.
Four streets were winding in the highest region of the town Vilne, Lida, Railway, and Mill Streets. The fifth, Swine Street, was a Goyim street without any Jews.
|The tiny Great Soletchnik
Jews of the area made their living in the markets, not only from Soletchnik. But when the Goyim would gather there for bazaars or holidays, the Jews would feel a little or threatened.
Goyim would get drunk and start their murderous scuffles between themselves; the Jews had to be on guard so it won't be taken out on them.
They would drink beer'le at Khaye Isha's. She was a woman of valor. She sold illegal vodka and when a policeman would catch her with such a bottle she would grab the bottle and break it on the spot so he would have no evidence. When the drunken Goyim would start scuffling she would throw them out one by one, accompanied by a black Shmini Atzeret on you.
The Jewish peddlers and the cattle traders did not make a bad living, while the craftsmen worked till late at night and barely earned a living. Although, there was one tailor, Shimshon Lemelman, who managed to live better. He was something of a public figure; when he wanted to say something at an assembly, he would say: I, Shimshon Lemelman, ask for the word.
Some Jews had a horse and wagon, trading with surrounding villages and noblemen; others were just vozhaks, like Ishya, Isroel and Valtuch. The Goyim would call Valtuch Yoske vozhak. He was a tall, very strong, and quiet Jew, with a small black beard; he could pick up a huge closet from one side by himself, while from the other side several strong Goyim were needed. His small, weak wife, who was afraid of the evil eye, would add to every sentence ‘as I should say’: today I baked a little bread, as I should say and by this meant a big loaf of bread.
Their daughter Libke would tease the neighbor across the street, shouting to her: No, Reb Rachl Leah, our duck will not go over to your garden.
Their son Yitzick Meir was discharged from the Russian Army because they couldn't fit shoes for his huge feet.
The official poor folks had their own jobs: two times a year, on Pesach and Hoshana Raba. On Pesach in the Matzah bakeries, [they] would sieve, knead, pour flour, pour water wherever needed. On Sukkot [they] sold the Four Species.
In order to help Jews with credit there was a bank in town, serving also the surrounding towns. They [Tr. Note: residents of other towns] did everything to move the bank to them. The Benakani Jews, who had better financial wherewithal than the Soletchnikers, would say: according to our status, our legal standing, we deserve the bank.
Mattea Landau, the bank director would say: ‘Gezetzketzshmetz, that's how it is!’ And the bank stayed with us.
Mattea would request solid guarantees; he wouldn't approve a loan for everyone. He was an educated Jew, a harsh but straight Jew. Once, my father asked for a loan not knowing what guarantees would be requested. Mattea told him: Moshe Yankl, sign and go, I and Velvl Streletzki will be your guarantees. He knew very well that it was going to be hard for Moshe Yankl to make the loan payments.
He called the Rabbi the Rebetzin's husband, would argue with him on law or peshat, and always had to discuss every point. Because of him, the Rabbi moved to the left side of the street, to live in Beth Midrash. Landau's wife would also study Gemarah pages during her spare time.
Certain Jews lived in houses belonging to the nobleman Wagner, and the one designated to gather the rent was Alter the Painter, an elderly Jew who always walked around with a golden watch that he got as a present from the nobleman. Guys always asked him about the time; he liked it very much. He liked praying against the cantor's pulpit and he was an honorable house manager. His wife MerehYides, when she saw that in the butcher's shop the Goyim could buy soft meat for cheap while the Jews got meat with bones for a higher price, she would say: I wish all my enemies were Jewish.
The teacher Leyzer would give private lectures in their house. During the Abyssinian war she came in to the house on a very dark night and said: How do they conduct a war on such a dark night, they will stab one another in the eyes.
Shmuel Levine, who traded leather and [was] a butcher, was also the fiddler of the town. He would play while his wife Sorale and the children would sing along. It was a joyful, warm, dear home.
The most elegant woman in town was Mereh Levine, the widow. Her daughter Khava (now in Israel), a joyful girl, was the main actress in the theatrical plays in Soletchnik. Her son ChaimMoshe'ke didn't look a big hero, but when the Goyim would start a riot in the market, he would grab a wagon shaft and start beating them up in several at a time.
The Gabbai of the Beth Midrash was Velvl Streletski, a handsome Jew of honorable appearance with the looks of a gentleman. [He] was a Chazan in better days and sent his children to study in Vilne. He lived on one side of the house and on the other side lived Kasriel Khlavanovitsh, a clever, spiritual Jew.
Another interesting family was the family of Moshe Levi Katz. Theirs was called the Red House. The father was a shoemaker, the mother Beile, a baker, and the children unsuccessful but wellknown proletarians with whom the Polish regime would collaborate every May 1st. The daughters Reyzl, Khavah, and Esther [were] very laborious. Esther (now in Israel) took care of the town library. Yakov was a talented poet, and Zerach a very refined fellow could be a good speaker except that he pronounced a lamed [Ed. Note: the letter ‘L’] as a resh [Ed. Note: the letter ‘R’], which played against him.
Velvl Aba Yudes, the shoemaker, used to visit several homes to discuss world politics after the Sabbath prayers. He, meaning his Blumeh, would host the boys and girls, soon to be ‘wheels’. They would play panden, dance, and have fun. Their daughter Radke would read romances and tell stories to the youngsters in great detail.
The Rabbi's Shamash, Benye, lived in a small house near the Beth Midrash, together with his son Avraham Itshe and KhayaPesel Kaplan with her husband and their six children. Despite their bitter poverty, they would share the little [they had] with other poor people passing through the town, [they] would sleep on the floor and give others their beds. There was always an orphan stranger staying with them who they kept without [getting] money. Reb Benye always found something to talk about with everyone and loved to chat. When he went out to call a man for minyan, he could forget himself with chatting, and not come back with the man until the Alenu Leshevach.
The youth liked to get together at Khana Dvora Levines'. She had a gramophone with records, and two sons and two daughters, and in the yard a big viltsher goose and squirrels
Jews would get together in the Beth Midrash, pray, spend time together, and study a page of Gemara after the prayer. Here would also appear preachers, chazzans, and Hertzl and Trumpeldor advocates.
In cold winter days it was impossible to keep the Beth Midrash warm, so everything moved up to Ezrat Nashim. The prayers, the cheder, the synagogue, the lefties' library, and the meetings of the liner and the bank and [social] movements, all was there.
The town was in general Zionist, but there were other organizations [such as] Mizrahi, HeKhalutz, Zionist Youth, and Beitar. I was in Beitar, first as a commander, later as culture activist and educator. It's interesting that Beitar was a stepson of the town, they would wonder about me, How is it becoming for Frumale's (my mother) son to be a Beitarist.
My mother was the best seamstress in the area. She sewed dresses for noblemen's wives and for members of the government, and the upper gown for the priest. She worked till late at night and always found time to educate her children to become better persons according to her standards. She would react on the spot to any child's misbehavior, the opposite of my father, who was too good to react harshly and immediately. He would collect a big debt and then would give us a big portion of punishment, not proportional to our current sin.
My sister suffered much shame because of me. Many would pick on her because her brother was a Beitarist, although, as I recall, all the Zionist organizations coexisted not badly at all. They all took care of the library, and conducted plays, social, and other events together. Everyone knew that only togetherness can make wonders.
It's a heartache that our little town is no more and that it's sweet, interesting people perished in such a painful way.
by Esther Katz (Taibel)
Translated by Emma Karabelnik
Towards the end of the war I was enlisted in Lithuanian brigade, and I returned to Soletchnik together with them. The shtetl wasn't there anymore. All the houses were burnt down and the whole Jewish center was dug up. In the open pits our Gentile neighbors were looking for leftbehind Jewish items to take for themselves.
The generoushearted Jewry of Soletchnik had been wiped out.
No more was the warmhearted family of Chaim Moshe Goldanski. The big, open house for all those in need. The Mrs., Mineh Riveh, always busy with the business, but she would not forget every morning to put large pots of food in the big oven for the hungry and the poor. Widows and newly arrived beggars would come in and fetch food for themselves, a portion of a hot meal.
I looked for and I didn't find Reb Vulf Streletski, the handsome alwayssmiling Jew, full of humor. He was our Baal Tefila and the Gabbai of the synagogue. There would be no celebration in the shtetl, no wedding, no circumcision without [him]: Streletski had to participate and would imbue all those present at the party with his singing and joyfulness.
And on the contrary, if somebody died or became sick, Reb Vulf was the first to give comfort and to lighten the hearts of those closest.
Totally different, but also a very special product of our sweet shtetl, was Reb Moshe Yakov Krum. His whole family always worked extremely hard, from early morning till late night, never knowing luxury nor prosperity, but when you passed by their house you could hear bittersweet melodies of cantorial songs produced by the head of the family singing to himself while working. Chazanut were his weakness. If he heard that in Vilne, on the Rosh Hodesh Shabbat or Holidays there would be prayer with a known Cantor, he would go to Vilna by foot to enjoy his saying and his heartbreaking Jewish tones. Where else could one see such characters?
But they [the local Gentiles] harbored a hatred for these brilliant Jewish characters, and when the Nazi murderers came, they added their bloody hands and helped them destroy my shtetl, my beloved Jews.
I remember that on the first day of the war we all knew what would be awaiting us. The youth were standing in small groups having decided to flee. For us, Mereh Levine's house was a merry house with sons and daughters. Now, all those children were already married, and she, Mereh, was standing at the window, very sad, resigned from life, in deep silence, as if she didn't care how and where to live out her remaining life. At that moment, a horse and wagon stopped by the house. We ran towards it and saw her youngest son Avrem'l. For months he hadn't come to visit his mom, and now he had came to share her solitude so she would not be alone anymore. Now he was tired, he had to sleep, and tomorrow he would see maybe he could succeed in convincing her to escape. [Instead] they went together to the slaughter.
The worst murderer among our local neighbors was Yanek Pintshe, the Gentile son of a Soletchnik house owner. With his own hands he organized the slaughter of Soletchnik Jewry, and played a major, active role in the destruction of Voronova and its environment. He became famous and took pride in this. When my niece Gitte'le ran to her grandma and grandpa, he caught her with his own hands and shot her. He boasted about his heroism on several occasions.
After the war the hero left the region and moved away from Poland. Later, Hershke Kaplan, after going through a period with the Partisans and the difficulties of war, traveled to America where, together with his two young friends, they recognized Yanek on a train and delivered him to the police.
He was sentenced to only 9 months for illegally crossing of the border. They said that for his other deeds he should be tried in Poland, after being extradited; they had the right to try him only for what he had done here.
The three guys, Hershke with Moshke Rosvayevsky and Yoel Segal, broke into the prison, beat him [Pintshe] nearly to death, and they wanted to lynch him, but the prison guards saved him from their hands.
Now probably the criminal walks around free and happy.
Institution for homeless children
Benyeh the shoemaker lived across the street and I knew him well. He lived in a tiny house with one room and a kitchen he together with his family of five. At the entrance, where Benyeh worked, two goats were always laying about with great dignity as if they owned the place.
Besides shoemaking, Benyeh had several more businesses: he would call on Jews at night for Selichot before Rosh Hashana; on Succot he would go around to residences with a citron and he would recite the blessing for whomever didn't know it so the person could recite it responsively; he also distributed wedding invitations.
He did these jobs [not only for money] but also for his own pleasure. Along the way he would catch a chat with everyone, tell a story, or discuss politics. When somebody asked him about a story: When did that happen? He would say: Recently…about 15 years ago.
After spending such a day with people Benyeh would sit down at his workbench to do some shoemaking.
His wife Sarah, preoccupied and exhausted, would help him with raising the two goats. She would walk them alone in the fields for pasture. Thus, she had milk for the children and managed to save a couple of glasses for sale. In the summer she would go almost every day to the woods to gather berries, mostly blackberries. She would fry them and preserve them for winter, and she also sometimes sold them. She did everything to give an education to her children, or at least to teach them a trade.
But the main virtue of these two wideopen souls was their love for children, for the unlucky, the poor, the neglected and the crippled children. Sarah from time to time traveled to Vilne and came back with sick, neglected, and miserable children to take care of. She did this for many years. She could devote herself to one child for years until things got back on track.
Once they brought a little girl, limping and retarded, who couldn't move and had to be taken care of constantly. She stayed with them [the children] as long as possible.
Towards the end they brought a halfyearold baby who had lost his mother. His name was Chaim. They took care of him as if he was their own child nobody had the right to offend him. Anyone who did would get a hollering from the parents such that the person would want nothing to do with them.
When it was his Bar Mitzvah, they were told that it would be time to tell Chaim'ke his real surname. But they were against that, thinking of what would be best for him. In the end he discovered his origins and even met with his older sister, but he stayed with Benyeh and Sarah where he had a warm home and … was slaughtered together with them.
Benyeh and Sarah [were] a model of lovingkindness for Jews. [They] saved Jews with love and devotion the lonely orphans made miserable from the cruelty of life.
|Our Soletchnikers in Israel
by A.G. [Glikman]
Translated by Emma Karabelnik
(from the Vilne Journal, February 2, 1926)
On Adar 3, 5678 (February 15, 1918), at the age of 22, after a severe disease, in Great Soletchnik (Vilne Gub.), died Yakov Katz, a talented poet who left behind a collection of writings, beautiful original Jewish poems, and who didn't have the privilege of being published during his lifetime.
Yakov Katz was born on October 15, 1895 in the family of a poor shoemaker, Moshe Levi Katz in Vilne. When he was 4 years old his parents, in order to avoid poverty moved to a small town, Great Soletchnik, where he started the alefbet at the age of five not in a cheder, but with an old Jewish woman who for one gulden per month taught Siddur to boys from poor homes one scale lower than a cheder. He studied until his Bar Mitzvah with teachers who came from Vilne Katrialivke to Soletchnik for conditions to work with groups of children. The learning was not bright and not deep, and mostly not normal, but the children would study with desire and achieve better results than all their friends, even better than those who studied with the best known teachers of the shtetl. In the cheder he didn't feel comfortable; he didn't enjoy the learning. He strived for education. He would scrutinize books by himself and read a lot. He had a great desire to go to the city, that is Vilne, to study in a class, but the bitter poverty of his home almost put an end to his dream: his father sent him as an apprentice to a shtepper. A class, my son his father said is for children of the rich; poor children must work…
It was the jealousy of several of the littletown golden boys, of this shoemaker's son who couldn't coexist with local youth, which was the factor that caused one bigshot of the town, who used to collect money from the rich to release them from forced labor, to sell Katz as a volunteer to the Germans to work on the highway.
After a year of doing hard labor for the Germans, Katz returned home broken, totally scrawny, exhausted and enervated. He had neither the will nor the strength to move to the city anymore, and stayed home for the winter of 5678. In these last weeks he had a premonition of death. In January 1918 he became seriously ill; he lay sick for a month and in February he died at the age of 22 and 4 months.
|HebrewReligious School in Soletchnik
Yakov Katz didn't live to be published, but his poems show that a poet left this world too early, one who could have with time been discovered, blossomed, and taken an honorable place in Yiddish poetry. Despite of the fact that he was a worker, he didn't write political poems. He devotedly described life in a small town, using no rude writing, and in a totally different manner totally different from what our poets were doing until then.
Yakov Katz's poems are fruits of a young muse which hadn't yet come to its full power, but they are already marked by the poetic stamp. His style is light and velvety and his rhythm soft and moderate.
by A. Glikman
Translated by Emma Karabelnik
From the sky meandered by accident
To Earth a silent soul,
It fluttered, it twirled
On a lightbeam of comfort!
It longed, yearned for life,
Then had this soul
by Yakov Katz
Translated by Emma Karabelnik
May it be wilder than before
To live I want to live!
May blood gush for years
To live I want to live!
May the years go by slowly
That then I'll die peacefully
While lying in a quiet tomb,
And great everlasting peace
Great Soletchnik (Vilne gub.), end of December 1917
Translated by Emma Karabelnik
I see flowers, beautiful flowers
I pick a handful;
I can't decide: a blue flower
Or a red one, or a white one.
It doesn't matter, I pick them all,
I pick flowers by the pile
Will it come? Then again
I know only this I pick now flowers,
Great Soletchnik (Vilne gub.), June 12, 1916
by Tzemah Krum
Translated by Emma Karabelnik
The Red Messiah
When the war broke in 1939 the Russians occupied Soletchnik. They proclaimed that they had come to save us from war, oppression and anti-Semitism.
They called everybody to watch a film in a Polish barrack. Before the film a political commissar gave a political speech and told how Russia had once suffered for its ideals.
But now he finished we have everything, even salt and matches are available in Soviet Russia.The audience clearly heard salt and matches and thought that the speaker was joking, because these two items were [in the homes of] even the poorest refugees from Poland.
Later we asked a Jewish Red soldier what was meant. He looked around to check that nobody was listening and said:
Guys, you will have more than enough trouble and went away.They expropriated Israel Levin's house and turned it into a club. They took the fortepiano from Wagner and placed it in the club. Gentile youngsters would bounce on it with their paws and get excited like little children and [make a] racket. All the tables were full with newspapers, chessboards, and lotto. The youth were instantly co-opted, especially the younger ones with real socialist origins. They had to force an audience to [come] to the meetings. At the beginning people would attend, but later everybody knew exactly what the speaker would say, and everybody, everybody, was fed up. Even the most enthusiastic communists in the town were disappointed by this land of their dreams. The Russians would tempt the locals. They would scatter promises of things they would bring from Russia. Among other things, the speaker said:
They will bring as much pepper from Russia as you want.In the audience sat an old Gentile woman. She would burp loudly and the clownish youngsters had brought her there to have a laugh. The speaker asked the grannie:
How much pepper for example do you need, grandma?She replied:
Life is bitterer than pepper. What more do I need?The poverty and the shortages in Soviet Russia were the result of their policies. When they came to us [to our town], the officers wives bought everything [in our shops]. Old fashioned dresses, which the shop owners lost hope to sell, they grabbed them as if they were the latest word of fashion.
Kasriel Khlavnovitsh, who managed to sell all the leather from his shop, told me:
You know what I think, Tzemah? I think they have nothing. Because if they don't have leather, they don't have cattle, they have no milk and no butter and cheese. And if so, they don't have any meat and no wool. So what DO they have?Meanwhile all the stocks of food and goods were emptied, and Jews began to worry about the near future. But fear of Siberia and fear of their treatment of [what they called] democracy's enemies, scared everyone. They [the Russians] started to bring goods for distribution, but one had to stand in line until midnight to get any.
It seemed that this was Stalin's secret: to keep people occupied 24 hours a day with concern for food and keep their minds away from politics, thus giving the regime quiet time.
Soletchnik Jews worked during the day and stood in lines for some food at night; or families would split in two groups: one would work and the other stand in lines; or [they would] sniff around and grab from here and there. The situation was awful. Worries over simple things, food, clothes, heating and shoes, became so hard that people wished for [something] worse but [which was] at least different, meaning to say:
Anyway we didn't gain any freedom with this regime; at least in another country we'll have what to eat.
The Nazis arrive
Early in the morning we heard that the Germans had entered Russia, and already on the next day the Russians fled like cowards and left the town to itself.
Part of the youth, especially those who were active in the Russian regime, fled with them, but most remained for Hitler.
The first days were tensely quiet. But the moment the [Russian] military was gone, and the first German officers appeared, they immediately began organizing a local brigade among the Gentiles and started tormenting Jews.
The first decree was the yellow patch which had to be worn by every Jew, whose blood and lives were [now] worthless. Later they began recruiting us for forced labor which consisted of the most shameful jobs, for which we got crumbs.
Aba Yudke, Velvl Soletchniker's son, once went out without the yellow patch; they shot him on the spot in the middle of town. Before that he managed to beat up a Polish collaborating hooligan. My father went with a sack of corn to the mill. There a Polish policeman beat him up so hard that Gentiles who witnessed it cried.
The Polish hooligans did their best to please their Nazi masters and outdid them in their Jew-hatred and murderousness. Once they captured me, Velvl Goldanski and Dr. Levine, and forced us to be harnessed as horses to a wagon carrying stones, and to drag it quickly like horses. They beat us nearly to death with sticks, and Yanushek, Wagner's servant and later a communist activist, shouted:
Your good life is finished, you dismal hedonists!After a few weeks, when Hitler's murderers had sated the local hooligans with Jewish blood, they then allowed able-bodied [Jewish] men and women to work in Wagner's fields. The commandant was a Nazi, a big German guy with a red face, and a murderer. He would scream and intimidate us without a reason, just for his own pleasure. Rokhele Levine, a very pretty girl, on one occasion couldn't stand his ox-like kicking and ruddy grimacing, and so she started laughing. He ran after her and beat her, and then she was gone for having laughed.
The work in the fields was very hard, but at least it was close to the town.
In the Ghettos
Awful news came from Vilne. Life for Jews there had become unbearable. They were beaten, shamed, humiliated, and thousands of them had been taken to death. The ghetto was like a cage in which all victims were trapped; the slaughterer then comes whenever he wants, extracts, and slaughters.
On Yom Kippur, when we were told that we would be concentrated in a ghetto, the wailing, the sobbing, and devastation were indescribable. Jews at the Beit Midrash, big minds, independent and experienced with trouble became totally broken, helpless and desperate.
Every family hired a wagon, put in a few of their belongings, seated the children, the elders, and the weak, and drove to Divenishok, a town 21 km from us.On the way out of the town Polish police performed a wagon search and took whatever they wanted.
After arriving from Voronove, we were divided into the houses of local Jewish families, and that's how we lived. But, before we had time to look around, new information arrived that the ghetto had been surrounded. We knew what it meant because all the news about slaughter-actions started with the surrounding of the ghetto
I remember that my first reaction to this news was that if I don't run away [escape], I'll go crazy. Only thanks to these thoughts of escape could I handle all those awful news. I began organizing a group that would, together with me, look for ways to escape, but unfortunately we didn't escape.
Meanwhile the days during which we were encircled by cannibals went on for years.
One afternoon we were driven out of our homes to the market [place]. Armed Gentiles, amidst unarmed Jews, took high positions so they could see every Jew and anyone from running and saving himself.
That was on May 11th, 1941. After a hard winter of hunger and cold, of diseases, pain, and blood, a beautiful May light had finally arrived as a precursor of spring. But for us Jews it was one of the darkest of days. In the middle of the marketplace [was] a table. There were sitting those who would decide whether we were to live or die. Here, Jews were sorted: left, right or straight. Everyone went in the direction ordered. First they had to leave all their most expensive and dear possessions, and then they went left, right or straight.
Straight was to death.
Those who were left alive heard the bullets killing their dear ones and then were again ordered to be concentrated in the marketplace. We were counted again. Now we were a handful, only a few dozen remained from hundreds.
The staff commander from Lida made a speech before us, explaining to us that because Jews had always hated Germany so much, it was now [time for] revenge and these would be acts of world justice. In the middle of his speech, the horses and wagons came back, filled with the possessions of the murdered. We, the unfortunate survivors. had to watch and recognize the clothes, which only minutes before had been on the bodies of our dear ones. Hearts were crying. And what's next
After the speech we all scattered to our homes. There, heartbreaking scenes took place. We suddenly understood our disaster. It became crystal clear who would not be with us any more; our [feelings of] insignificance, loneliness, and helplessness grew [quickly].
Some Jews wanted to convoke a minyan, to pray minha, to say kadish, but there was no one to join in the amen.
After a few more days, all the survivors, except for several men with professions, were sent to the Lida ghetto. Here we met acquaintances from surrounding towns. Their stories about the cruelty of the criminals in the ghettos frosted the blood in our veins. The biggest criminal, Vashoikevitsh, who had helped in the selections of Jews during actions and in the ghettos, and here in Lida had played a big part in the horrific deeds, was himself from Soletchnik-- from a respectful Christian family. We were good friends in school. He would frequently come to our house, and I go to his. Sender Levine. Who worked in his yard, told him that I and my family were here [in the Lida ghetto]. Minutes later he called the engineer Altman and told him to take 3 persons from my family to work in the sewing workshop. Altman told this to the Yudenrat. He located us, even before we were registered in his [records], and we were immediately sent to the sewing workshop.
On the next morning, some Jews were really afraid of us. We didn't understand what was happening, but later it became clear: to this good work were taken only those who had paid well for this life-promising working place or who knows, maybe for another kind of fee. We were there without any fee or any other mediation. To us it was clear; later other people also understood.
In the forest
Hundreds of Jews worked in the workshops, on a big square surrounded by fences. There was no access here for the Polish and German murderers. Here, nobody was beaten up, here you could have a talk from your heart. Here Jews prayed in minyans. From time to time people could do a job for themselves. Here they started making gun parts for themselves and for others. Here we started to prepare our escape to the forests.
The practical Altman and his assistant Alpershtein would gather us from time to time and try to convince us not to escape to the woods: this, they explained, would bring trouble to those who stayed behind in the ghetto, a.a.v., but I was drawn to the forest.
Here we worked without direct German supervision, even the gate guards were Jews, and they would warn us if somebody from outside was approaching. One time the Head Commissar arrived, and the guards didn't have time to warn everyone. He went straight into the mechanics department and noticed that one Jew was repairing a revolver. The Jew started running and he [ran] after him. The mechanic jumped over the high fence and disappeared into the ghetto. The German stopped chasing and kept the incident silent, but [since then] Jews were more afraid.
I was the biggest agitator to run to the forests, because I couldn't see any other outcome. I made them understand that the good situation here [in the workshops] could sucker us in, and then it would be too late.
I used to have special meetings with the Soletchnikers, and a separate meeting with Kasriel Khlavonovitsh. We used to talk, walk, think, gripe, and [just] be silent. When I told him:
Be well, I am going to see how my [folks] doing.He would ask me to stay for a bit more:
Wait, Tzemah, let's be silent for a little longer.In the ghetto we lived in a small, unfinished room with double beds for sleeping. Together with us in the same room lived the Schneider family from Vilne. It was very crowded with no air to breathe, but we suffered the most from the bedbugs. They helped the Germans to shorten our lives. The nights were tormenting; at night one would think and overthink our situation.
It was clear that we were being kept in the ghetto in order to be exterminated, and meanwhile we were being used as workers. Later would come the slaughtering.
Life outside work became unbearable. Every sound of an engine from outside the ghetto, every scream from afar would freeze the blood and stretch the nerves as by pinpoint, as by needle. I thought again that I'd lose my mind if I didn't run away.
Once, on a very cold winter day, during a normal panic in the ghetto, when a rumor spread that an action is coming, my mother also went out into the street to hear and see, and she caught a cold, got sick with pneumonia and died. People gathered around her death-bed and cried bitterly. Everyone was jealous that she had been privileged with such a natural, good death.
But nobody thought to commit suicide. Maybe some didn't have the courage, maybe some were too apathetic, or maybe some wanted to live to the day of revenge. Nobody knows how great is the taste of revenge for people-animals.
Only few committed suicide. There was a Jew, Graby, who was a collaborator with the Divenishok Yudenrat. He worked for the Germans in a gas station. [Once] he lit a cigarette, threw away the burning match, and the whole station went up in flames together with the Germans. When they ran to look for him they found him hanging in a place not far from there. Maybe it should be considered an act of heroism.
After my mother's death, as soon as the 30 days [of mourning] were over, I told my father, sister, and brother that I was leaving for the woods. They tried to talk me out of it. It was known in the ghetto that Jewish Partisans suffered from hunger, raids, and Russian anti-Semitism, and my family wanted to save me from all this. I survived only due to the dream of escaping to the woods, but I didn't have someone to run with.
One day from the woods came Moshe Khvayovski, a compatriot from Soletchnik, a good fellow. He was hiding in our attic and waited [for an opportunity] to take guys to the woods.
I spoke with him, and he took me with him. [Together with us] escaped Moshe's parents and the Levine family. Only a few had guns. The leader of the group, higher up than Moshe, was Perets, the second in command in the forest. It bothered him that we didn't have guns. He picked on me to go back to the ghetto and threatened to shoot me, but I continued with them until, after hard nights of fear and dangers, we came to Bielski and to the Jewish Partisan squad.
Bielski squad a Jewish shtetl
Tuvia made a strong impression with his wild appearance and calm behavior. He didn't expel anyone-- even those who didn't have guns. The man felt he had a mission given to him by fate, and he would perform it with real Jewish heartiness. The squad was in Budkevitser forest. Everybody lived in huts [made] of rods, slept on forest leaves scattered on the ground, did exercises and night shifts, and ate from the common kitchen.
Life there was sweet because the feeling of freedom and the opportunity for revenge made our souls sweet. But, we lived in constant fear of German raids, in constant alert, and we had, from time to time, to wander and move the squad from place to place.
Only in Galibaker Forest, in the deep, dense everlasting woods, did we get a real feeling of stability. [From there] we would go out for sabotage actions against the Germans-- cutting off their trains, railways, and other means of communication. We built a camp similar to a Jewish shtetl, with workshops for craftsmen, shoemakers, tailors, hatters, watchmakers, carpenters and mechanics. We built a mill and a bakery, and we even made a tannery. Russian Partisans would bring their cattle to us to make sausages, and left the leather for us. There was even a place for public prayer and we even delivered babies. A bath that we built was not worse than a bath in a bigger town. There were pots with cold and hot water, buckets to wash ourselves, benches to sweat, and in the middle a hermetically closed room were we used to disinfect our clothes in a temperature of 1200C. We made our own soap. People enjoyed the facility and came to bathe frequently.
Thus we fought diseases and prevented typhus epidemics, but we also had a hospital in the forest with two doctors and with an isolation ward for typhus patients in a separate zemlianka. A few dozen milk-cows gave us milk for the sick, the weak and the children and for the privileged.
We had dozens of horses with harnesses and wagon drivers who took care of provision and goods that were brought from the outside.
With time, our squad became an address for Jews who wanted to save themselves from the ghettos, from hiding with Gentiles, and from the anti-Semitism of Russian Partisans in the mixed squads. The number of Partisans grew every day as did the number of those who depended on them. People began to regain their lives. Near the kitchen, with the warmth of its fire, Jews would sit around and sing sad songs, and hold parties to raise morale. The performer at the parties was the artist Munyek Shepirski.
News came from the frontlines of Red victories. The Germans began to retreat and they fell straight into our hands, and we had the good feeling of life and survival.
Before the squad dissolved some repressive deeds occurred which showed Bielski to be a vengeful and vindictive person, as if a drink of power had gone to his head, but in general I remember the squad, and Tuvia himself, as positive memories. He created a safe harbor and rescue conditions for helplessly desperate Jews. Hundreds and hundreds of Jews who survived in Galibaker Forest [to see] victory, and are alive today, owe their lives to Tuvia Bielski.
The last assembly of the squad occurred in Navaradok. Everybody received a Partisan certificate and everybody continued on their way.
Among Soletchnikers who returned from different squads: Khaveh Khvayovski with her children Moshe and Sender (Yehoshua died in the woods), the Levine family, husband, wife and the children, Hirsh Kaplan, Berke Sheynman and Yitzach Meir Valtukh.
Died during attacks on German groups in the forests following Soletchnikers: Leybke Kaplan (Hirsh's brother), Ysroel Streletski (Chaim Keile's brother), Sender Sheynman (Berke's brother).
Transliterated by Judy Petersen
|Tzviya (wife), Chaya
|Ita (wife), children
|Channah, Shmuel, Dina
|wife, Boris, mother
|manager of Wagner sawmill
|Channah-Devora, Taibe, Batya, Eliahu
|Michaela, and their son
|Riva (Rivka), Yisrael
|Bluma, Rodel, Nechama, father Yudel.
|Chaya-Pessel, Malka, Tzviya, Leib
|Frumel, Alte, Ora-Hershel
|wife, Beyrl, Rivka, Chaya
|Binya, Avraham Itsche the teacher
|Yocha (STRELTZKY), Bluma, Rivka
|Rivka, Sender, Fruma
Transliterated by Judy Petersen
|died in Canada
|died in Vilna
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