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The Jewish Ghetto
Navahrudak, Belarus

(during WWII known as Nowogródek, Poland;
After WWII known as Novogrudok, Soviet Union)


A Sea of Troubles

by Eliyau Berkovitz

Translated from Yiddish by O. Delatycki

From the Navaredok Memorial Book
Translation of Pinkas Navaredok

A. Under the Soviets

On the 1st September 1939 the people of our town were overcome by unexpected bad news of the outbreak of the Second World War. There were immediate worrying consequences: mobilization into the Polish army – sons and husbands were leaving their homes and were taken to the frontline to fight the Nazi beast. The war was brief. The Polish army was defeated very quickly by the much larger, motorised army and superior air force of the Nazis.

On the 17th of September the Polish forces left Novogrudok in haste and the town became ungoverned. Some said that the Germans were coming and that spread a fear. At 4 o'clock in the afternoon we heard the news that the Soviet army crossed the borders and was advancing to the west. At 7 o'clock in the evening a loud noise was heard and the first powerful Russian tanks appeared in Korelicze street. They were met by the Jewish population with jubilation and flowers. It was announced by loudspeakers that the Polish population should not evacuate the town. No one will be harmed. People in the streets were in a festive mood. The Soviet forces were coming from all directions. Some soldiers picked up children for a ride on the tanks. There were Jewish soldiers in the Soviet army who made themselves known to the local community. At 10 o'clock in the evening the loudspeakers announced that the town was governed by a military administration. A 10 pm curfew was in force and all civilians should go home. At 1 o'clock in the morning sounds of intensive shooting were heard. Everyone endeavoured to take cover. No one new what caused the shooting. A rumour spread next morning that some bullets broke window panes. Some soldiers told us that they were fighting the Poles, who were shooting from cover. The strong fire was concentrated in Kowalski Street, where the Catholic Church was. The resistance was suppressed by the morning. During that night the first Jewish victim fell – the older son of Aba Zamkowy was shot by the Poles.

Some days passed. Things returned to normal. Farmers were again coming to town. The shops resumed trading. A parity of the Polish zloty and the Soviet ruble was declared by the authorities. Thus both currencies were in circulation and trade was brisk. The Soviet soldiers were eager customers. They bought everything in sight. The merchants soon realised that it was a fool's game. In a few months time crippling taxes were imposed on all traders. However much the takings were they did not suffice to pay the taxes. The privately owned shops were shutting down. The state started to organise cooperatives of all kinds. The cooperatives employed the owners of the shops and artisans. Manufacturing plants were established such as a clothing factory, which employed all tailors. This was followed by a shoe factory and a furniture factory. Gradually life was changed to the Soviet style.

Thus life continued uneventfully till the beginning of 1941. At that time a mass deportation to Russia of a section of the Jewish population occurred. On one Friday morning packed carriages were seen. They were the possessions of Jews who were previously wealthy. [Several details of this are wrong]. On that Friday there was disquiet in town. The relatives and friends of the deported were bemoaning their loss. Life continued monotonously till the 22 June 1941 [two days of monotony, the event described in the previous sentence happened on the 20 June 1941] when the Germans attacked Russia.

The tunnel

One day a segment of the surviving Jews met and formed a plan to attack the guards of the Ghetto and run wherever they could. We managed to purchase and smuggle some arms into the Ghetto. We knew that we were all destined to be killed. We thought that if we ran a few might survive. We organised ourselves in fighting units. We were all able to fight and knew weapons. A date was set to carry out the attack. All was ready. As the time approached we noticed that the guards had been doubled in strength. We realized that our plans had been disclosed. We decided to investigate the leak and find the culprit. We had in the Ghetto a Dr Jakubovich, who now lives in Israel. He was injured in his leg. His brother was the chief of the Ghetto police. The brother knew of our plans and was prepared to escape from the Ghetto with the rest of us. We asked him what was to happen to his brother, since he would not be able to run. He answered that 230 people of the Ghetto could not sacrifice themselves for one, even if that person was his brother. He told us that he was in favour of the attack on the guards. The doctor's wife, who was a midwife and was doing her best to cure her husband, found out about our plans and opposed the plan to attack the guards. She was protesting and pleaded not to sacrifice her husband and to postpone the attack. The attack was postponed and this, in the end, turned out for the best.

We were looking for a solution and considering all possibilities. Perhaps, perhaps… A group of us got together with the chief of police Jakubovich. As a result of our discussions it was decided to dig an underground tunnel. It seemed a fantasy. But gradually the fantasy was changing to reality. We planned how to go about the job. When the plan was ready Berl Yoselevich and Jakubovich were put in charge. The work was started with great enthusiasm and strict secret, because we were continuously watched by the police on the outside and the foremen of the workshops, who were Russians. Fifty people were selected. They were young and, we hoped, they could keep the work confidential. Every day each man had to work a two hour shift in the shaft. The digging was started in the barn where some of us lived. One of the first problems to be solved was to dispose of the soil removed from the tunnel. As it happened a few buildings in the Ghetto were built under the one roof. Holes were made in the partitions under the roof to create a passage. Men were seated every few meters and the soil in small sacks was passed from one to the other and thus transported to the loft. The sacks were made by the tailors from rags. In time the loft was full. At that stage double walls were made and soil was deposited under the floors. The work proceeded in silence. Communication was in sign language. The most intensive work was done on Sundays, because it was officially a day of rest and the gentile personnel was not present. On Sunday the Ghetto was cleaned and the garbage removed. The opportunity was taken to mix the soil with the garbage and get rid of it. A number of technical problems had arisen. The walls of the tunnel had to be shored up to prevent them from collapsing. The carpenters prepared sections made of wood. The wood was stolen from the workshops, carried under coats, made up into panels and installed at night. Thus meter after meter, the tunnel was extended. Two to three metres were dug daily. The next problem was lack of air and darkness. Kerosene lamps were made, but they did not work for lack of air. Our tinkers, such as Niomke Portnoi and others, came to the rescue. They made up pipes in form of cones – wide at the bottom and small at the top, where they penetrated to the outside. This solved the problem of air supply. The men inside the tunnel worked naked because of humidity in the tunnel. It so happened that July was a wet month and it rained daily. Water entered the tunnel. A new job of removing the water had begun. We would empty it and new water would seep in. In time we overcame this problem too. The tunnel was 60 centimetres wide and 70 centimetres high and ran 2 meters under the surface. This made it possible for a person to crawl through the tunnel. At this stage the tunnel was 100 metres long and it became more and more laborious to remove the soil. We looked for a solution. A carpenter from Zetl by the name of Borecki came to the rescue. He made two platforms on wheels with timber rods for rails. He designed it very well. One carriage was moving forwards and the other backwards. The carriages were pulled by ropes made from rags. This innovation made the work much easier. One improvement led to another. Electric light was installed in the tunnel. We had no electricity in our rooms, but there was electricity in the workshops. Our electrician Gershon Michalovich had run a concealed connection through the loft. We smuggled in lamps and we had light in the tunnel. The work continued. In the beginning of September 1943 the tunnel was 250 metres long. News began to circulate that the Ghetto was going to be liquidated and the town would be made Judenrein [cleared of Jews]. We heard from our Belarus police that the Ghetto in Lida was liquidated and all Jews were taken to Majdanek. The police was pleased to convey to us such news. We decided to escape as soon as possible. The news about the tunnel was disclosed to everybody in the Ghetto and was received with enormous surprise. There were however some who had expressed doubt about the possibility of an escape. Some said that we would be trapped alive in the tunnel. Others thought that we should wait and see what the time would bring. We made every effort to convince everyone. We told them that if we do nothing we would be all killed. If we tried we might succeed. It was decided to conduct a secret ballot and we would follow the will of the majority. The result of the ballot was 165 votes for and 65 against. We decided to escape. The next problem was who should go first and who would be last. Everyone wanted to be first. We came to a decision that no one would be told where he was in the line. Everyone was given a piece of paper with the name of the person ahead of him. The small supply of arms was divided in two: half to those who would guard the exit the other half to those that would guard the entrance. In case of a hold up nobody would be allowed to enter the tunnel to give a chance to those inside to save themselves. It was decided that we would leave on Saturday night. The night turned out to be clear and everyone was held in readiness till one in the morning. It was decided to try again on the next day, Sunday. Everyone went quietly to their barracks. The men in charge knew that they could risk the delay because the Germans never conducted an 'action' on a Sunday. Next day was a clear sunny day, but this time there could not be further delays. The living dead in the Ghetto milled around in feverish excitement. As our luck would have it, at 5 o'clock in the afternoon dark rain clouds began covering the sky. Soon after the rain with thunder and lightening came down. We loosened deliberately the metal sheets on the roofs and the wind made them flap noisily. As soon as it was dark we were all in our appointed places. We slithered through the holes in the loft to the entrance to the tunnel.

Now I have to tell my story, because I did not escape through the tunnel and nobody knew that I remained in the Ghetto. I saw all that was happening in preparation to the escape. With me was my sister Chaje Sore Ludski. She had a heart disease. I knew that she would not be able to crawl 250 metres on all fours through the tunnel. She would only stop others, because nobody could pass her in the tunnel. I was looking for a solution and I believed that I had found one. I spoke to a Jew in our Ghetto by the name of Shmuel Kulachek, who stemmed from Iveniec. He too suffered from a heart disease. He had a 14 year old son. We discussed the situation. He told me that he had prepared a hiding place. He said that if I was in agreement, we could wait and after the escape we would decide what to do next. He took me to a loft and showed me what he had built. It was a double floor 50 centimetres high, covered on the outside with a high pile of smelly rubbish to discourage people approaching it. I liked his preparations and we started storing our provisions, water and blankets, to make it possible for us to survive in the hiding place for some time, if necessary. I included in the conspiracy my brother-in-law Zisl Raisin who was the husband of my younger sister Bejle, who was killed by the Germans on the 7 May 1943. When I explained to him our intensions, he answered that he left the planning to me and would do what I intended to. In the evening, when all departed to the tunnel we hid in our hiding place. There were five of us: my sister, I, Zisl Reisin and Kulachek with his son. At 8 o'clock the escape started with the agreed signal: Gershon Michalewicz the electrician short circuited the current to the projector. The projector was installed on the roof of the court house and illuminated the whole surroundings. We saw from our hiding place the projector blinking a few times on and off and than stopping for good. Our Gershon did well. From then on till about 9 o'clock there was total silence. It was calculated that the escape through the tunnel would take 20 minutes. We were certain, therefore, that the escape was successful. At 9 o'clock intensive shooting started in town. This lasted for about half an hour and then there was silence again. At 11 o'clock we heard more shooting and running by the Belarus police all over the Ghetto. Of course they found no one. They must have been puzzled about the escape. I heard them shout in Russian: 'not a living soul'. There was a lot of activity and after a time they found the entrance to the tunnel. There they found a letter to the district commissar Traub, in which he was informed in a humorous way that the Jews had departed. The rest of the night was quiet. In the morning all the gentile supervisors arrived and were arrested. In the afternoon they dismantled and removed all the equipment in the workshops. For the next three days there were visitors to the entrance to the tunnel. Gentiles from everywhere came to look at the rarity and to see what people under threat were capable of. We, in our uncertain situation, were also glad that at least some Jews saved themselves. We stayed in hiding for eight days, till we felt that the guards were not there anymore. On Yom Kipur at 1 o'clock at night, in the rain, we decided to abandon our hiding place. We were aiming to go towards the forest in search of the partisans. I went out barefoot and shook intensely the barbwire. When there was no reaction we convinced ourselves that the guards were not there. We came down one by one. We went out through a hole which the police used to trade with the inmates. We were carrying my sister. We were aiming to get to the Sieniezyc forest. We got to the forest which was about 6 kilometres away. In the forest we felt more secure. It was beginning to get lighter. We saw in the distance two men with rifles. We thought that they may be policeman and we hid in the bushes. They shouted at us to come out and come over. To our joy we discovered that they were Dr Rosenbloom and his gentile superior. He was very glad to have met us. He told us about the escapees from the tunnel. He said that more then half were caught and killed by the Germans [Jack Kagan, who escaped through the tunnel {see his 'How I survived' on p.299 of Pinkas Novogrudok}, investigated after the war the number of survivors from the tunnel and found that more than 170, or 74%, of the escapees through the tunnel survived]. The rest joined various partisan formations, most of them joined Tuvie Beski's group. He was glad that some were saved. He advised that we should not join a small partisan group, because Jews may not be safe among gentile partisans. He said that they were not keen to help us, and if they meet a Jewish partisan alone they might behave like the Germans. He gave us information of how to find Bielski's group. It took us another 8 days to find Bielski, where we met our people from the Ghetto. We were well received by them. We were not alone at last. We found ourselves among Jews with arms in their hands. We were in the forest and free to fight the Germans. We were in the partisans for 10 months. Every now and then we experienced hunger, but we were alive. On the 22 June 1944 the Russian offensive against the Germans started. The Germans were running to the west faster than they came to the east. At the end of June 1944 Novogrudok and the district towns were free of the Germans. [Novogrudok was liberated by the Russians on the 8th July 1944]. When the Russian army came we were in the forests. They have seen for themselves that there were partisans and their families in the forests. A day after liberation plans were made to return to our homes. But what homes? They found large mass graves. Some of us were mobilised to the regular Russian army. About 50 Jews out of 6000 remained in Novogrudok. Most of us could not live among the ruins. We made our way to Poland and from there to Israel. next, Under the German Yoke, by Lyuba Rudnicki ►►


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