WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
To read Chaim
Basist's original story, written in Hebrew, click
October 1941. The Jews of Lida were forced into the three neighborhoods that made up the ghetto. We arrived from Lipnishuk together with my mother’s young sister Tsirl and her husband and their three children Sarah, Rachel and little Shulamit. Tsirl’s husband Naftali claimed that thanks to us they would be protected from the great harm that was about to befall. My Uncle Naftali always said that of all the family, the Jews who would not be harmed were our small family, and thanks to us, also his own. From the first day of the war, Naftali became more and more religious, to the point where he would pray three times a day and fast on Mondays and Thursdays. They came to find a place to live with my mother’s cousin, Chayele Herman. Two of our houses were destroyed by a bomb on the first day of the war. Herman Noyman, her husband, was a kind, pleasant man, we felt very close to his family, and of course when they came into the ghetto we shared a room with them. A small wooden house where once lived three Polish families, now housed 40 people. It was very crowded but in spite of that we lived in hope that we could manage in those difficult times until our salvation arrived. We lived with the Noymans in harmony; that is, we shared everything. In one room were the five members of the Basist family and the Noymans with their children, the youngest only four years old.
The Germans ordered every Jew over the age of twelve, man and woman, to work. Since my father was a well-known artist, the task of establishing a metalworks factory was imposed on him; it was to be in a two story building that had been a school and which was fenced off and guarded by German policemen.
I was at the time a student, and with no other choice my father employed me as an assistant welder. The place was relatively protected from the taskmasters, and we also got soup once a day and a few slices of bread. After a while, my father also brought in my Aunt Tzvia Boyreski’s son David, and so we passed our time working, processing and manufacturing various items for the Germans. That work saved us during the time of mass killings, and also helped us to prepare things that later on we could take into the forests and use to fight in the partisan units and to take our revenge on the Germans.
Summer, 1939: We, my mother Sima, my sister Raya and I, went to a vacation spot named Minoyti, 15 kilometers from Lida where we lived. Every year, during the school holiday, we would go to stay in a rural area. In the villages, homes were built there as rentals, and three or four families lived there in a home with a common kitchen. The village spread out for the length of one street, and the surroundings were lovely; there was a large lake and forests with pine trees, with a pastoral atmosphere. On the weekends, my father Kalman would arrive by train and return to work on Sunday. On Fridays and Saturdays, Jewish young people from Lida would come by the score, riding bicycles, to immerse themselves in the lake, surrounded by nature. The place was full of life, and it was thought that the non-Jewish owner of the only market made a great deal of money. All of the people of the village were as one family. It never occurred to us that everything in our lives was about to change.
At the end of August we returned home to begin the new school year. My sister studied at the commercial high school of the Pierian priests. Whoever graduated received certification as a bookkeeper. I was about to enter seventh grade, the last year of my studies at the government-run elementary school. There was talk of war, we heard the speeches of Hitler, and I remember the arguments my father would have with his friends at our house over glasses of tea from the hot samovar, about whether war would break out or not.
My parents registered in 1932 to make aliyah to (move to) Eretz Yisrael. My father was one of the senior members of the Mizrahi movement in our city. The Jewish Agency had promised to arrange certificates (immigration licenses) for us, but they told my parents that there was no rush, because our economic situation was good. We didn’t press the matter, but waited for our turn. Upon our return from our summer home, we didn’t even have time to start the school year before there was a call-up for the Polish army. My mother’s brother, Pessah, was also drafted, and we accompanied him and his unit to the train station when they left for the front.
With the outbreak of the war, even Lida was bombed. The Germans attacked from the west and the north, and after about two weeks Poland fell. The Soviets entered from the east, and Poland was divided up between the Russians and the Germans. The border with Germany was now approximately 200 kilometers from us. I can remember the entrance of the Soviets into our city; I stood at the intersection of Sovalska and Third of May streets in the center of town. It was morning, very rainy and gloomy, and as we learned later, darkness was also about to fall upon our lives. The Soviet government took us from our old, good school to a different, more spacious one. The government didn’t think much of the standard of Polish education, so they dropped us down one grade level. We began to learn according to Soviet methods of education. Since it was a Jewish school, we also were taught Yiddish, the Yiddish of the “ibeskiya”, the “ames” Yiddish, “real Yiddish.” In addition to Yiddish, we studied Russian, Byelorussian, and German. It was explained to us that the main enemy was the Germans, and that when war broke out in the near future it would be wise to have a cadre of fighters who knew German.
In addition, they taught us civil defense, and the use of weapons. All of this took place during the time reserved for physical education. Thus things went on until the 22nd of June 1941. During the period of the Soviet government, those who had been involved in Zionist youth groups were persecuted, taken away in the middle of the night, and imprisoned in Siberia. We would come to learn that neighbors and people we knew had simply disappeared. Unfortunately, in light of what was to happen later, no one from our family was deported; for of those who were deported, most survived the war.
June 1941 – Storm of War
I remember well the days of June, 1941 on the eve of the outbreak of the war between Russia and Germany. We were on vacation from school, and visiting my mother’s family in the town of Lipnishki (in Yiddish, Lipnishuk), 27 kilometers from Lida. Every morning I would go with my friend Yanke to fish in the river and large lake nearby. Yanke was one of the ten children of Leibke the Beard. In the town of Lipnishuk no one was called by a last name; instead everyone was given a nickname. Leibke the Beard had a glorious face, red hair and a long beard; hence his nickname. One morning, as we left to go fishing, we heard an explosion which we assumed was connected to the training of the Red Army. When we returned in the early afternoon, we got a big shock: soldiers running around everywhere. I ran to my Aunt Tsirl’s house – there were Soviet officers billeted there. We learned from them that war had broken out, that Lida had been hit hard and was burning. They said there were many injured, and I worried for my parents and my sister. In the evening, my parents and sister arrived with only the keys to the house. Everything we owned had been destroyed by fire. We were happy that at least they were healthy and whole. In my naiveté, I asked “What of my violin?” Funny…
We were witnesses to the fall of the Red Army in a matter of mere days, and shortly thereafter we watched as the German army entered the village. Thousands of captives were transported through the village, hungry and ill; among them was an officer, one of the former residents of my Aunt Tsirl’s home.
My grandfather of blessed memory, Yoel-Moshe, came out with a sack of bread and began to distribute it to the prisoners. A German soldier hit my grandfather, took the sack from his hand, and began to throw the bread into the mass of prisoners. The captive soldiers began fighting amongst themselves over every morsel of bread, while the German soldiers stood to the side and laughed. Any prisoners who collapsed during that march were immediately shot to death and buried in the drainage ditches at the side of the road. The “grave” was marked with a wooden board upon which was written, “Here lies an anonymous Russian soldier.” Thus thousands of Russian captives were brought to their deaths at the hands of a few German soldiers, without any attempt at fighting back, or escape, on their parts.
At Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we remained in Lipnishuk, and the prayers of that season, which out of fear of the Germans took place in private homes, are engraved upon my memory. Our family’s prayers took place at the home of my grandfather, an eighty year old Jew who had once been a rabbi and head of a yeshiva. The Germans had forced the Jews to shave their beards, and I saw my grandfather without a beard for the first time in my life. It was difficult to become accustomed to the sight. The service was very sad and difficult, as we offered up our supplication to the Creator of the Universe. It is difficult to forget that occasion.
At the end of September 1941, we received an order to move to Ivye, a larger town than Lipnishuk. As former residents of Lida, we were given permission to return there instead. My mother’s younger sister Tsirl, together with her husband Naftali and their three daughters, joined us. We left for Lida in farmers’ carts. When we reached the city, we got a shock. Everything was destroyed. In the entire center of the city, which had been populated by Jews, there remained just burned walls and broken windows. We could barely recognize the streets in which we grew up. The house of my mother’s aunt, my grandfather’s sister Sheina-Riva, was through some miracle the only one on the street to remain whole. Opposite was the old prison, burned. Several families crowded together into every apartment. My Aunt Tsirl moved in with Tzviya, the daughter of Aunt Sheina-Riva, whose house had also survived. On their first day in the city, the Germans murdered about 300 Jews from the intelligentsia, among them our neighbor Orshovsky, a wonderful man who was also once my mathematics teacher. The Germans forced the Jews to select a Jewish council (Judenrat) of about thirteen people, one of whom was Hever, the principal of my old school, and the popular teacher, Lichtman.
A short time later, in October of 1941, we were forced to affix a yellow patch to our clothing and ordered to move into defined neighborhoods or quarters. Before the war, there lived in Lida about fifteen thousand Jews; now about ten thousand were concentrated together in three quarters: Piaski, Koshrova, and the third and largest of them, Postovska-Kholodna.
In the Ghetto
Our family, together with the family of my Aunt Sheina-Riva, moved to the Postovska-Kholodna quarter. We settled into the house at number 15 Kholodna Street, a small wooden house on the corner of the street, which was divided into four apartments comprised of one room and a kitchen. The bathroom was outdoors. On one side the house was bordered by the workshops of the Regional Commissar (Gebietskommissar), which were erected by the initiative of the Judenrat in order to help the Jews survive; a fact which allowed us to infiltrate them occasionally. On the facade of the house we were forced to erect a sign with the names of the tenants. We lived in one room, together with the younger daughter of our aunt, Chayele, her husband Herman and their small daughter. In another room lived the older daughter of our aunt, Yocheved, with her husband Menachem, their two children and two young men who were refugees from the city of Łódź in Poland whose names were Egnatz and Avraham Pladon. In another room lived a refugee named Felix from Hamburg, Germany, with his wife and their children. In the room at the rear lived Moshe, the oldest son of my Aunt Sheina-Riva (called der strasinik) with his wife and niece, a young girl of about 13. Altogether, there were forty people listed on the sign affixed to our house.
Every Jew, from age 12 or 13 had to work. The Germans waged a psychological war against us. They would tell our representatives that everyone who worked, or, as they put it, every “productive Jew,” would remain alive. Most of the work was very difficult. For the most part, the work involved tearing down the walls of the houses which had been destroyed during the bombing of the city…apparently they feared that an underground would be created. As it turned out, most Jews worked on demolishing their own homes; undergarments were organized into piles for use by the Germans. “There must be order” was their famous expression. The Jews worked cleaning the city, and in the winter clearing the roads of snow and ice. Others worked loading and unloading trains, and various other types of jobs. The Jewish council tried in many ways to convince the Germans that there was a need for Jews to keep the system running, since they would be essential for establishing a center of workshops in one place to serve the army as well as the civilian system. Thus the idea was born for crafts workshops, which went by the German name Handverkshtaten. At the head of the factory stood a German inspector, who worked on behalf of the regional commissar, and at his side was a Jewish engineer named Altman, the son-in-law of Tsukranik, one of the wealthy men of the city. Altman, an assimilated Jew who spoke only German and Polish, believed until the end that the Germans would not annihilate all of the Jews. At his side was Alperstein, a Jew who believed, like him, in the promises of the Germans.
With the creation of the workshops, they searched for craftsmen of all kinds. My father, of blessed memory, who was the only certified master welder in the region, and was very well known professionally, was chosen to be the manager of the metal-works factory. Moshe, the son of Aunt Sheina-Riva, was selected as the manager of the wooden furniture factory. The manager of the garage was a mechanic named Velvel (Zev) Kropsky. There were also factories for the manufacture of clothing, shoes, and more. I joined my father in his work shop, in spite of the fact that I had no knowledge at all of the profession. Thus our life in the ghetto began.
The ghetto was fenced with barbed wire, and there were two entrances. The first entrance was on Suvalska and Postovska Streets. Another gate, on the eastern side near the village of Ruslaky, allowed the Germans an easy entrance and exit from the ghetto from the villages. The ghetto was bordered to the east by the Lidzeike River and to the north by the railroad tracks leading to Minsk and a bridge guarded by Germans and Ukrainians. On the western side were the workshops and Suvalska Street. That was the main ghetto, made up of small wooden houses which at one time were populated by Christian families, altogether two streets and a few lanes. The Koshrova and Piaski quarters of the ghetto were smaller, and as it later turned out, temporary. They were relatively far away from the main ghetto, on the other side of the city. The offices of the Judenrat were at the main entrance on the western side, on the Suvalska Street side. On the Kholodna Street side was the entrance for those who toiled in the workshops of the Handverkarshtaten. We entered the ghetto in the sub-zero cold of winter, living in houses that had no heat. For lack of space, we slept three or four to a bed. There was a severe shortage of food, medicine, and other essentials.
At work, the Germans allotted each of us a 500 gram piece of bread, and once a day a bowl of soup from the kitchen of the regional commissar. The food was brought to us by David-Lipa Berkovitch, a large ruddy-faced man with a good heart. Only those who worked received food. At that time, rumors began to reach us from Vilna and other cities, that the Germans were going about killing Jews. Also in Lida the Germans killed Jews, though not in large groups, just to confuse and frighten us. At the start of 1942 they imprisoned about eighty Jews who had worked in the old army camps, and among them was Shimon, the father of David. After a short time, they killed them all, for the Germans claimed that they had tried to steal weapons. We knew this to be a lie, but at that time we had no connection with the underground or the partisans. Also for their other murders, they had explanations. They would say that the Jews who had been killed were not productive. It created disquiet, and we could feel the danger.
At this time, Jews began to arrive by circuitous means from Vilna. The tidings that they brought were even worse. In that city, there had begun a period of “Aktions,” or mass killings. At that time, Lida was relatively quiet, and so began the flight of Jews to our city. It was necessary to quickly supply all of those who arrived from Vilna, Grodno and other places with documents stating that they were long-established residents of Lida, otherwise they would be put to death. Yocheved, the oldest daughter of Aunt Sheina-Riva, and her husband Menachem Resnick, were friendly even before the war with the mayor appointed by the Germans. Menachem appealed to him for help, and he provided, in return for payment, blank forms for documentation with the seal of the municipal government. Thus began the chapter in which we provided the refugees with documentation produced by Menachem Resnick.
In the meantime, the Germans continued with their selective killings in Lida. Among others, they murdered Sima Tereshinski (from the panbokim), our neighbor before the war, who had traveled to a nearby town without documentation. Sometimes we would hear from the goyim of other towns, or from Christian visitors, about the killing of Jews from other places. One day we were ordered to hand over all of our furs, money, gold and other valuables; those who refused would be killed. All of us worked from morning until night; we passed the long winter nights in the light of home-made oil lamps, with stories, songs and card games, arguments over our situation, hope that the Germans would soon be defeated and discussions about the war and what might be done. We didn’t have any answers.
Tragic Events - the Tale of the Vilna Refugees
In January or early February 1942 an event took place that had tragic consequences. In Lida there was a family of thieves by the name Zimleich, Jews whose business it was to steal horses from the goyim and sell them. They decided to break into the Orthodox Church on Suvalska Street close to the ghetto. They broke in and were surprised there by the priest, who was there at the time. In the midst of the ensuing struggle, the priest was stabbed and rushed to the hospital. The matter was turned over to the Germans, and in the course of their investigation they discovered that the crime had been committed by Jews. They ordered the Jewish council to turn the burglars over without delay, but the three criminals had escaped from Lida.
In the ghetto there were a number of refugees from Poland who were acquainted with the criminals, and the Judenrat had no choice but to turn them over to the Germans. The two (one of whom was named Virobek) were arrested and handed over. In an effort to try and save themselves, they revealed to the Germans that the Jews were tricking them, stating as proof that in the ghetto false documents were being prepared for Jewish refugees. In addition, they pointed the finger at Menachem Resnick as the one who prepared the documents.
That same night, a Polish policeman who worked for the Germans came as an emissary from the mayor and warned Menachem and Yocheved, advising them to run away. Menachem, Yocheved and their oldest son, Noah (who was about 13) left the ghetto for Vilna, leaving behind their five year old son with his aunt Chayele. Later on all of the members of the Judenrat were arrested.
On the second or third of March 1942, we awoke early in the morning to the sound of shouts and shooting. Alarmed, we ran out to the street. Whoever was not fast enough, or who was sick and remained in their houses, was shot to death; thus I saw our neighbor Mrs. Shapilkovsky, a nurse by profession, dead in the snow outside our house. The rest of us they stood in groups of four and led us to a huge field near the central post office. At the entrance stood two of the criminals, who pointed out all of the refugees who had received falsified papers stating they were residents of Lida. Those people left their rows, and were led outside the city and murdered. Thus were murdered several hundred Jews, most of them from Vilna. For the Germans, it was a kind of rehearsal for an Aktion which would take place the coming May, in Lida and the surrounding area.
After this sad event we came to realize that it was a kind of code for what the future held for us. The news from the front and the battle for Moscow warmed our hearts; in spite of the pretense by the Germans that the fall of Moscow was imminent there was clear proof that the war waged on. Every day trains full of wounded German soldiers passed by the ghetto from the direction of the front.
I remember well the arguments with the German Jew, Felix, who would say over and over that if we worked faithfully our lives would be spared. There were many in the ghetto who shared his belief. We moved into the apartment abandoned by Menachem and Yocheved, together with Egnatz and Avraham Paldon, two brothers who were refugees from the city of Łódź in Poland. Egnaz, the elder, was a handsome blond man with excellent manners, who radiated nobility and was extremely quick-witted. His brother Avraham was dark-skinned, tall and athletic, a former Polish boxing champion in the youth division, with a fiery temperament. Egnatz, who was quite fluent in German, was able to establish a relationship at his workplace with two Germans in the gendarmerie (military police). Through them he was able to obtain food and many other daily necessities. For our part, we contacted a family friend, Jan Doilitko, from the village of Stigni, about 20 kilometers from Lida, and also with a Polish friend who had been born in Lida named Boltus. Both of them helped us obtain food. It should be remembered that by helping us they endangered their own lives and those of their family.
Among the many who escaped from Vilna there were two young people, a brother and sister. The former was a lad of thirteen named Leonek; his sister was twenty, blond and quite beautiful. Leonek’s sister somehow obtained a polix-deutsche document (a document stating that she belonged to the German race) and she was able to get work in the central post office. Leonek remained with us in the ghetto, and was wont to wander amongst the Christians in the villages and occasionally come to see us in the ghetto. From him we were able to learn of events taking place outside the ghetto.
Meanwhile, more tragic events took place inside the ghetto. Following the incident of the refugees from Vilna and other places, the six heads of the Judenrat were arrested and beaten to death most cruelly. Those who were responsible for disposing of the bodies told of how it was impossible to identify any of them. A short time later, the Germans ordered that a new Judenrat be established.
In the apartment in which we lived with Egnatz and Avraham stood a large baking oven. Since we were getting food from the two Christians, from Egnatz and from Zerach Arlock, my mother decided to go into the business of baking and selling bread and challah, and later to preparing meals; as a result a sort of small restaurant/bakery was created. All kinds of people came to buy bread. I remember one family from Vilna, respected thieves by the name di-halbah challah (half of a challah). Their son-in-law, a nice young man, used to ask my mother to sell him a half of a challah. When my mother asked him, “Why half a challah?” he replied, “Because I’m the second half.” Later on, he would join the partisans with us, and was later executed by his commanding officer for no good reason.
Sometimes people would come to us, sent by the Judenrat, who forced us to feed them. Among others, I remember one solitary Jew from a city near Lida, who once a day would come in and sit at the table and my mother would serve him a loaf of bread, soup and a pot of tea. The man was ravenous; he grabbed everything. Apparently, it was his only meal of the day.
In the Postovska-Kholodna quarter of the ghetto lived some of my closest friends. Lazer Yizraski lived on Postovska Street next to the old Jewish cemetery; down a lane near him lived Chaim Cantor, the son of Dr. Cantor. Next to Kholodna, down the lane, lived my former classmate with whom I had shared a bench, Beyla Strodborski; sometimes we would meet and reminisce about old times in school. We often heard rumors about killings in Vilna and the annihilation of the Jews of Grodno. A few refugees arrived who related horrific stories to us. One of them, a man from Grodno, told us he ran away from a train that was transporting people to be exterminated in a place called Małkinia (Treblinka). He explained how they were brought to the railroad cars, and how he had stabbed a German guard and after many nights’ walking came to Lida. We also heard of mass killings happening in various places; it was difficult to believe, indeed it seems that subconsciously, we refused to believe.
Here I must mention my mother’s aunt, Sheina-Riva, who was a tall, robust woman, sister to my grandfather Yoel-Moshe. My grandfather had another sister (Chaya-Leah) in Lida, who died before the war. Sheina-Riva was about eighty years old. Her house stood opposite the old prison. Pessah, my mother’s younger brother, had been arrested and was under investigation in the prison. On the day the war broke out, the prison was bombed and caught on fire. The prisoners were able to break out of their cells, but when they reached the outside gate, which was made entirely of steel, they found they were trapped within the fire. It was impossible to break open the gate because the jailors, when they fled the fire, had locked it from the outside. Sheina-Riva could hear the cries of the trapped prisoners, and knew that her brother’s son was among them. She equipped herself with an ax and broke open the lock from the outside. She told us that she saw many people break free from the prison; some knocked her down to the ground in their haste, and she was unable to see if her nephew was among those who escaped. Sheina-Riva was indeed a woman of valor.
Not far from us, on one of the lanes, lived another son of Sheina-Riva, Yeshiyahu (Isaiah), with his wife Nechama and their three children. He was younger than his brother Moshe, and worked in the stables of the regional commissar, Hanveg. Yeshiyahu had initiative, and had gotten along well with the Poles since before the war. Through them, he was able to get a hold of two rifles, and to arrange with the Christians for his daughters to be placed with them. The elder, Esther, was about ten, and her sister Rochele was about one and a half years old. The middle daughter did not want to leave her parents. In the end, Nechama refused to join the partisans, and all three perished in Majdanek. When we returned to Lida from the partisans, we found Esther (who today lives in Israel) and tiny Rochele, who now lives in Argentina.
Life Goes On
Generally, Jews in our part of the world lived together in extended family groups. On my father’s Basist side, we were close to the “Zigalnitchky clan,” and on my mother’s Plotnick side, to the Moshovitzs and the Levinkovsky families; in other words, hundreds of residents of the city. During these difficult times, we were especially close, helping one another. Some of our family was in other ghettos in towns next to Lida. My grandfather and grandmother, together with my mother’s older sister Golda and her husband Yosef and their three children Alter, Shmuel and Moshe, who were my age and my sister’s age, and my uncle Pessah and his wife Yaffa and their two young children, were in the ghetto in the city of Ivye. Our connection to them was tenuous, through messengers who would occasionally come to Lida.
I remember a muscular Jew, about eighty years old, who was a strong man in spite of his advanced age, an expert locksmith who made his creations by hand; each one was a work of art. To be able to open his locks, you had to know how many times to turn the dial to the left or the right. This Jew was one of the kantonistim; when he was but a lad of twelve, he was kidnapped by the Russians and forced to serve in the army for twenty-five years. He used to tell us story after story about the war against the Japanese in 1905, in the days of Trumpeldor, and we young people would listen with our mouths hanging open. One story I remember very well: once he was sent to get a “tongue”, that is, to capture a Japanese soldier. It was a nearly impossible mission, but not for him. He crawled to the Japanese position, stunned one of them with a blow from his bare hand, and carried the Japanese soldier across his shoulders behind the Russian lines.
There was among us another Jew, a skilled woodcarver, whose name was Hanoch (his nickname was “the Red”). He truly had red hair, and golden hands. Hanoch believed that through his art, his life and the lives of his family members would be spared. Next to us also worked four blacksmiths, each one an artist in his profession. There was also Velvel (Zev) Kropsky’s garage. About twenty people worked in the garage, among them Baruch Levin from Zheludok, a town close to Lida. The regional commissar particularly admired the garage. I remember a man named Zvi Hazan, who worked in the factory my father ran. Hazan was a soldier at the start of the war, but he was captured by the Germans near Smolensk, about 600 kilometers from Lida. He ran away, and by a circuitous route was able to rejoin his family, his wife and children. Every now and again he would tell us tales of his travels.
Archik Gerbovsky, a watchmaker by profession, also worked with us; he was well-known among us as a safecracker. When they occupied the town, the Germans confiscated many safes, some as large as a wardrobe. The safes could withstand fire and were sealed and keyless. We were ordered by the German supervisor to find a way to open the safes, one way or another. Archik was a true artist at cracking safes, and a very pleasant person. Someone else who also worked with us in the workshop was a Jewish refugee from Poland by the name of Lasky, who was an expert engraver. I learned the trade from him, as did my cousin David, even though neither of us had had any prior knowledge of the craft. We worked and lived in fear, and in the hope that the Soviet troops would be able to push back the Germans while we were still alive.
In the ghetto there was a fixed order to the days; the Jewish council worked as much as it was able to ensure that we had as normal a communal life as possible. The Judenrat worked under extremely difficult conditions and under a great deal of pressure. On the one hand, they made every effort to meet the demands made on them by the Germans, while on the other hand they labored diligently to protect the lives and health of the Jews. As far as is known, there were no cases of death from hunger or disease in our ghetto.
As I have said, the needy were helped by the stronger families, as was instructed by the council. The Judenrat in Lida did not give unconditional cooperation to the Germans, a fact which was made unequivocally clear later. In the ghetto, as has been said, there were refugees from many places. Several of them are especially engraved upon my memory. Before the German occupation, during the time when the Soviets ruled, among others who came to our house, there was a Jew from Lublin; fifty years old, a childless war refugee, very polite and noble. As time passed, it became clear to us that he was from a very famous Polish family. He and his brother had owned the famous Zilber Brother’s distillery. They were particularly famous for, among other things, their kosher-for-Passover liquor (paykhovska). I also remember Professor Amerant and his wife, who arrived from Vilna. Zilber’s situation, and that of others like him, was especially difficult. With a great deal of effort, my mother was able to convince Zilber to eat with us.
Among the Germans in Lida, there were two who were particularly awful: the first was Vindisch, a short man with pursed lips, quiet, who didn’t yell or beat people. To select victims, he would come to the workshops and go through the departments, looking without a word passing his lips; he was checking to see if we were being as useful as was expressed to him by the regional commissar, Henvag. We later learned that Vindisch had already prepared his plan for the annihilation of the Jews of the region; he was the person in charge of the “final solution” in our area. The second, Werner, was tall and robust, and was always accompanied by a German shepherd by the name of Donner. If the Jews saw Werner and his dog Donner approaching, they would run for their lives. He would catch them and beat them near to death, and then he would give the order, “Mencsh (man) – catch the Jew!” The Jew would be forced to stand still while the dog bit him over and over, until Werner had had enough. Those two were the ones who planned and executed the Aktions against (the annihilation of) the Jews in the entire region.
The regional commissar Henvag wanted, for several reasons, to keep the Jews alive, and from time to time he would come into the workshop with groups of people in order to show them the place, in the hope that the workshop would continue to operate. I remember that one time Kobe arrived; he was the supervisor (“governor general”) of all of Byelorussia, of which Lida was a part. Kobe was the “arch-killer” who was later killed by the partisans with a powerful bomb in his home in Minsk, the capital of Byelorussia.
The Germans recruited all kind of bad elements from among the local population. Entire units the size of a military company and below, filled with Lithuanian and Latvian murderers, who were noted for their great cruelty. In particular, two Polish policemen remain in my memory, one by the name of Brode (dirt) and the second named Podheini who had a deep scar on his face. Their cruelty knew no bounds; they each murdered dozens of Jews.
And so life in the ghetto went on. We were largely unaware of events occurring outside the ghetto. But things happened inside the ghetto, as well. There was the incident of the two young people, Leonek and his sister, and the refugees from Vilna. The sister, who as it was said worked in the post office, was a very beautiful girl. Many of the Germans thought she was a German as well; they fell in love with her, but she rejected them. One of them reported to the S.S. that she was a Jew impersonating a German, and she was arrested. At the workplace of Egnatz and Avraham the bosses were sergeants in the military police named Prost and Dombeck. Prost was in love with the girl, and he traveled to his birthplace in Germany in order to bring documents stating that she was born in the same town. He then returned with the documents in order to free her from prison. But he was too late. In the meantime, the girl had confessed that she was a Jew and was put to death. Sergeant Prost, who had tried to save the girl, was sent as punishment to the Russian front. Leonek, the girl’s brother, was left with no one.
Egnatz, a man of many accomplishments, brave and cool-headed had, as was told before, made contact with various Germans through his place of work. One incident that happened was that a German soldier from the unit in which Egnatz and Avraham worked came to say goodbye before he left for the Russian front. He entered the ghetto, even though it was forbidden. Egnatz fixed him a hot meal and gave him vodka; a discussion ensued in which the soldier said that according to his commanding officer the war would be ending in a few weeks in a victory for the Germans. Avraham said to him, “Yes, but first you must conquer an important stronghold, ‘mita meshunah’ (a strange death).” The German answered, “If we haven’t yet, certainly we shall conquer it very soon and then the war will end.”
In the evenings, friends of Egnatz and Avraham would gather at our place, among them Leibel Orzchovski, whose nickname was “ketzef”, Meir-Yosse Itzkovitch, whose nickname was Tel-Chai, Avraham Luit, Chaim Kalmanovitch and his sister Reshka, who was Avraham’s girlfriend, a friend of Egnatz’s named Moshke Shaborvitch, a refugee Teiger, young people from the ghetto police, and others.
To pass the time, we used to play cards, and I remember one popular game was “The Ninth Wall.” We also played poker, sometimes for large amounts. I remember once, when Orzchovski lost all of his money, he turned to the dealer and asked, “Can I play for my pants and boots?” He had new pants and boots. He played, and lost, and went home in a pair of old pants and old boots in place of his own.
As mentioned before, my cousin Menachem, his wife Yocheved and their son Noah tried to run away from Lida after the incident of the falsified documents. They left the city for Vilna, and stopped near the city of Voronovo, about 40 kilometers from Lida. It was difficult to get to Vilna, and even in Voronovo it was risky for them to stay. By chance they discovered a group of Jews who worked for the Germans clearing trees from the forest, and joined them. At night, they would sleep in the home of a farmer who lived nearby in an isolated house. On Sundays, the farmer would go to visit in the town of Voronovo. One time in a pub he met up with a Polish policeman of his acquaintance who collaborated with the Germans. In drunken camaraderie, he confided that he had two Jewish refugees from Lida and their son living with him. The next day, the policeman arrived. The son, who was the first to realize that the man approaching them was a policeman, tried to run away and was shot to death. His mother Yocheved saw this happen and was unable to save him. That same day, Menachem and Yocheved decided to leave for Vilna, in spite of the many dangers. They were very brave people. They arrived in Vilna and were absorbed into the ghetto.
We did not know of their fate. We were involved with our own day-to-day problems. There were rumors going around; something was going to happen. There were different feelings as to what it would be, but something warned us that something terrible was about to happen. We continued to work. When people talked about annihilation, our acquaintances would say, “What are you talking about? If one Jew remains in Lida, the regional commissar will allow you to stay; you will remain alive.” My father would say, “The Germans will not allow a single Jew to remain alive; we are all going to die.” He said this in front of me, in spite of my youth.
In the middle of April, 1942, my Aunt Tsirl, her husband Naftali, and their daughter Sharele came from the Piaski Quarter. My Uncle Naftali told my parents, “We want Sharele to stay with you: you will stay alive even if the rest of the Jews are exterminated. We want her to stay with you.” After about two weeks, the girl (who was about 10 years old) began to miss her parents and my mother took her back to Piaski.
The Massacre of the 8th of May 1942
In the early hours of the morning of the 8th of May 1942, we woke to the sound of shots and shouting. We heard one of our relatives call out to us from the street, “Hurry and dress, and come out of the house! Otherwise they will kill you.” From afar we could hear the Germans shouting, as well, “Raus! Raus!” (out, out) and the sound of shooting. We dressed in haste and went out into the street, where we marched with many other Jews to the gate of the ghetto, next to the Judenrat. The ghetto and surrounding areas were surrounded by units of the Wehrmacht. Indeed, it was the Wehrmacht that took an active role in the Aktions; the Wehrmacht, the German army, which the Germans have tried to deny had any involvement in the Aktions (slaughter).
They made us stand in groups of four; my parents, my sister and I were all in one row. Before us, in a foursome, walked our cousin Nachum-Yosef, his wife and their toddler; also his sister and her husband and their small child. And so, four by four, they removed us from the ghetto by way of Kraposka Street, thousands of people trudging along for kilometers, accompanied by Polish and Byelorussian guards. Along the street, motorcycles sped by with S.S. troops armed with machine guns in the sidecars. Thus we slowly progressed towards the railroad bridge and the train tracks leading to Molodeczno-Minsk.
I cannot forget several horrific sights from that awful march in those bewildering morning hours. Rain fell on people who had just awoken in terror from their sleep. There was one old woman of about eighty, whose strength failed her, and she sat down on the side of the road. I can still see the wild animal, an S.S. soldier, in his long coat, pistol in his hand, who quietly approached her, so as not to alarm his prey, and from half a meter away raised his pistol and shot her in the head, killing her. It was as awful as a nightmare, as if we were having a horrible dream. It seems to me that I didn’t even hear the shot, but I saw the woman topple over and die.
A few rows ahead, I saw another shocking picture; in the quartet of that row marched a couple of parents, a woman in her forties, her husband and two sons, one about sixteen years old and the other perhaps thirteen. The woman, a doctor by profession, had a Red Cross ribbon pinned to the sleeve of her coat. I remembered them from before the war; they had lived not far from our house on The Third of May Street, next to the Kamionka River, in a well-kept house with a flower garden. At the same moment that I saw the old woman collapse, I also saw the son of the doctor move as if to sit down. It turned out that the bullet that killed the old woman traveled another 20 meters or so and hit the thirteen year old lad in the head. His parents took him out of the row; his mother the doctor asked permission from the killer to dress her son’s wound. The German said, “Go ahead.” She had a first aid kit with her, and she dressed the wound. Her son sat on the side of the road with the German next to him. We got the order to move on, and as soon as we headed forward, the German fired his gun again, sadistically putting another bullet into the lad’s head and killing him. I will never forget that sight until the last day of my life.
Thus our river of humanity flowed slowly on, for kilometers; at three places they stopped us to perform their selections, and inspections in which they would check our documents. After a while they lost their patience and began killing people without checking their documents. When it came time for our group’s turn, I saw the regional commissar, Henvag, standing on a box; next to him were Altman, S.S. officers and “policia” - assistant policemen, who goaded us with shouts and blows. I heard Henvag shout, “Shlosser und familia, links!” (“The meister and his family, to the left!”) I was at the far left, and I pulled my family to the left. At the same moment, a German S.S. officer began beating me, while poking me with the bayonet from his rifle, prodding me to the right. I retreated to the right and we began walking under the railroad bridge, in the direction of the pits of death. Suddenly, a local policeman ran up to us with his arms outstretched, as if he were about to embrace us, while cursing in Polish. He shouted at us, “Where are you going? To the left!” Thus he took us out of the group and put us off to the left side. There, in the small lane, we met about one hundred other Jews, kneeling on the ground with a policeman guarding them. He said, “You will remain alive – kneel down!” For the next hour we listened to the fire of automatic weapons, and shouts; they had not yet given us any explanation for what was happening around us, and we were in shock.
The Sight of the Selection
I remember several unforgettable sights from that awful day. I remember my friend from work, Hazan, a plumber by trade, very brave and strong with an athletic build. He was the maintenance man who did all the repairs for the Germans. Vindisch, the conductor of the Aktion and the selection, knew him personally, and ordered him to go towards the left with his wife and children – towards life. Hazan insisted that his mother also be allowed to join them; he would not agree to leave and be saved without her. He chose to die with her.
The second incident was with Bebke Shitnitsky, an athlete and a soccer player, a member of the group “Maccabi.” In the ghetto he had served as a policeman. When he reached the selection point, according to the documents in his hand he and his sister were sent to the left; he also refused to part with his mother, and he also was sent, together with his sister, to death.
At the third stopping point, the ghetto of Piaski, marched my Uncle Naftali, his wife Tsirl, and their three daughters. When they got to the place of the selection, Naftali showed the killer his documents as a worker in the Handverkshtaten. The German told him, “We don’t need you anymore” and sent them to their deaths. After them came my cousin David, his mother Tzviya and his sister Mina; his father had already been killed together with the other workers in the army camp. The German (it seems to me it was Werner) asked him, “Who are they?” He answered, “My wife and my mother.” The German separated them, and sent the mother to the right – to death. David argued with him. The mother, who saw and understood that soon her children would also be sent to death, began to plead with them to consider their own lives, saying “My children, I have already lived my life. You must remain alive!” That was the last time she was seen alive. She was only 45 years old.
I could tell countless stories of the means the Germans used to hunt humans; a young man named Konopko told me that while he was being led to death, he managed to jump over the fence of the army camp that he passed by. He climbed up on the roof of a building and the Germans tried to hunt him with a new gadget, a sort of hook with a spring which was attached to a thin rope. Konopko had a large, hooked nose, and the hook caught on it and clamped down. The young man didn’t panic; instead he was able to pull the hook off of his nose (and a chunk of skin with it) and escape. A while later he returned to us in the ghetto with a large wound on his nose.
There were only isolated incidents of young men who were saved from the face of death itself; among them were Avershe Levitt (Arliok) and Mordechai Gershovitz. Mordechai was shot in the head. Through a miracle, the bullet entered next to his eye, and came out through the nape of his neck. With the last of his strength he was able to return to the ghetto. Dr. Miasnik took care of him, and for several months he was confined to his bed. He recovered, and later on he joined the partisans, and was able to make aliyah to Israel. His nickname was “the uncle from America” because of his stocky build.
After some time, time which seemed to stand still, after completing their murderous work the Germans allowed about 1,500 people to return to the Postovska-Kholodna ghetto. The Piaski and Koshrova ghettos had been completely emptied and were turned back over to the Christians.
The enormity of the tragedy we had been through was only made clear to us the next day. Almost our entire family had been destroyed. In house number 15 on Kholodna Street, only we, Egnatz, Avraham, and my mother’s uncle Moshe Movshovitz remained. The house was empty. That night we sat silently; we couldn’t say a word. We tried to drown our sorrows in drink. The next day, they didn’t take us out to work. That day, while my mother stood outside, a German suddenly approached her. It turned out to be Dombeck, who had come to see how Egnatz was faring.
When he saw my mother, he asked her in German, “Do your husband and children still live?” She answered, “Yes.” “So why are you crying?” he asked her. “All my family, my parents and siblings with their children, were murdered” she replied. Then the German whispered to her, “Yes, the brown gang” (the S.S. wore brown uniforms).
On my mother’s side only her older sister Golda, her husband, and their three grown children who lived in the Ivye ghetto survived. My grandfather Yoel-Moshe, my grandmother Mary, my Uncle Pessach and his wife Yaffa and their two small children were all murdered by the Germans on the 12th of May. We were told that the Germans forced the parents to put their children on their backs and crawl into the pits with them.
From my father’s family no one remained. After the war, I learned that in the Vilna ghetto only my cousin Zelig Kalmanovitch survived. Yeshiyahu, his wife and their three children, also David, his sister Mina and her life-long friend Moshe Markovitch also survived. From those two other quartets, the survivors joined us; likewise they transferred to Lida the survivors of the Voronovo ghetto. When it was learned that survivors from the Voronovo ghetto had arrived in Lida and were housed in a building near the Judenrat, I went to see if I could learn whether any of my father or mother’s relatives were still alive. It turned out that Avraham Bialitzky, a young man 23 years old, was still alive. A son of my mother’s cousin Chaya, her husband Moshe Kaplan and their one year old son, Avermele – all the members of the family who had been there – had been murdered.
Since Avraham was all alone, I immediately suggested that he come and live with us. My cousin David and his sister and her friend Moshe Markovitch also came to live with us in number 15 Kholodna Street. Moshe was a dear young man, a refugee from Poland. Ya’acov Druck, who arrived from the Voronovo ghetto, his wife Feigele and their son Yosele, together with Feigele’s brother and father, came to live with us, as did the Tzimrinski family from Piaski: parents, two sons and a daughter. Along with them came Baruch Levin, from Zheludok.
A couple of days after the massacre, we were forced to go back to work, and we somehow managed to get back into the routine. After the murder of so many, numerous houses were empty and were turned over to others. The houses were left with their contents inside when the inhabitants left them, so those who came later didn’t feel any lack. It’s possible to say that in terms of shelter and food, the situation was relatively good. The emotional situation was very difficult, as if a part of our bodies had been ripped away. The desire for vengeance, the strong will to take revenge against the Germans led us, the young people, to come together in small groups and discuss those things, even at work. The driving force of these groups was Baruch Levin.
The Story of Baruch Levin
Baruch Levin’s family was destroyed on the day the Germans entered Zheludok. Baruch was forced to run away, for his Polish neighbors had pointed him out as a communist. He decided to go to Lida, which was 30 kilometers from his place of residence. The only address he remembered in Lida was that of the Tzimrinski family on Palkovska Street. His good friend Eli Kovnasky worked for them as a leather worker. The Tzimrinski family welcomed him warmly and hid him. That is how Baruch came to us, at number 15 Kholodna.
He didn’t reside in the house proper with the rest of us, but settled in the attic. We, the young people, would climb up to see him after work, and heard from him chapter and verse on the subject of revenge. When we asked him why he didn’t live downstairs with the rest of us, he replied that, firstly, if his living conditions were better, his desire to take revenge on the Germans might dwindle, and secondly, that the Germans were certainly searching for him. If they happened to find him, they would need to climb a ladder to reach the attic. He had prepared an ax, and would kill the first German who came up the ladder, then take his weapon and break free. That was his view in those days. We listened to Baruch, and helped him, in the days that followed, in every way we could. Baruch also worked in the garage of the Handverkshtaten, very close to us, which made it very easy to help him. I personally prepared a home-made switchblade at work, to use in a time of need.
As I have already mentioned, we were involved in safe-cracking. Baruch asked for the opportunity to examine the open safes before the Germans came. He said he wanted to check for documents that might have his photo on them.
During that same period, the Shevhovitz family came to live next to us, parents Beryl and Chichele, their son Ya’acov and their daughters Masha and Sonia with her husband Zerah Arliuk. Our house at number 15 Kholodna was the organizational center of resistance to the Nazi murderers, particularly because of the combination of people living there; especially Baruch Levin, Egnatz and Avraham Paldon and Zerah Arliuk.
Preparing to Enter the Forest
During this time, a resistance group led by Yitzhak Fleisher, Chaim Kalmanovitch, Avrasha Liut (Arliuk), Leibel Orzakovshi (Kezap) and others was formed. A second group formed in the garage of the Handverkshtaten and included Baruch Levin, Velvel Kropsky and others. In Lida, there was no one central group that coordinated and concentrated all of those efforts. Instead, there were a few groups with no communication between them. The biggest concentration was around the two houses in which we lived. The central activity took place in our house. Essentially, three groups were active; the third was made up of our family, the Druck family, the Tzipelvich family and another approximately fifty people. In the beginning, we planned to organize in the ghetto. We established communication between the different groups, and we did so practically in the open, without any interference from the ghetto police or the Judenrat. The first goal was to equip ourselves with weapons. Egnatz obtained our first weapons: two pistols and a few hand grenades. Since we needed to build a hidden depot, we spent several nights digging under our house. The entry to the depot was through a cabinet in the kitchen. That is where we hid our first weapons.
There were a few ways to get weapons. There was a place where the Germans stored all of the scorched equipment they took from the Russians. Friends who worked in the gathering of that equipment told us about it, because among other things, there were rifles there. Occasionally in the mornings several of our members joined the gatherers, and at the end of the day they smuggled rifles, without their wooden butts, into the ghetto. I also took part in this activity sometimes. The burned rifles we would put into the oven and heat in order to make it easier to take them apart and repair them. A relative of ours named Ya’acov Platovsky used to fix the wooden parts of the rifles. All of this activity took place at night, with guards set to make sure no one surprised us at our work.
A second source for obtaining weapons was a cache of weapons abandoned by the Russians in a place about 60 kilometers from Lida, and collected by the Germans, in the area of the town of Baksht. Without permission from the Germans, it was impossible to get to the place. Velvel Kropsky and my father asked for permission from the Germans, and for a means of transportation as well, to go to the place and gather various materials such as aluminum cans for the production of items in the workshops. There was a cache of Russian airplanes there, vehicles and the like. Permission was granted, and occasionally some of our group joined in and, in addition to aluminum cans, they would bring back weapons parts. From that cache we were able to restore about 12 rifles, a sub-machine gun and two machine guns.
One night, while we were repairing and restoring weapons’ parts, the head of the workshops, Altman, surprised us at our work. Somehow, the youth who had been set on guard hadn’t noticed him. Altman asked us what we were doing, but the parts were already in our pockets. When Altman tried to learn by force what we were hiding, we pushed him, jumped over the fence and ran away. The next day, Altman gathered together all the workers in the workshops and told us in Polish, “History will tell us who was right, those that ran away to the forest (he didn’t mention the word “partisanka”) or those who faithfully stayed and worked.” That was his way of referring to what had happened the night before. He repeated over and over again that the only way to protect our lives was to work faithfully for the Germans. We didn’t have long to wait for the judgment of history; within a year we already knew the answer.
Another source was to purchase weapons amongst the Christians, but that was very dangerous and few attempted it. There were incidents where those who did paid with their lives. Our “good Polish friends” sent them to the Germans, and their end is well-known.
Near Lida was the ghetto of Ivye. Four days after the massacre in Lida, on the 12th of May 1942, most of the residents of the ghetto of Ivye were slaughtered. My Aunt Golda, her husband Yosef, their sons Alter and Mola and their daughter Masha (all adults) were spared. Those who remained in the ghetto also began thinking about escaping to the forest. My cousin Alter left with the first group for the forests of Morin, next to the Niemen River, about 10 kilometers from Ivye. That was at the end of 1942. The winter was an especially hard one, and after his feet froze, he was forced to return to the ghetto. Only a few managed to survive that winter in the forest. Most of those who left ended up returning to the ghetto, and were sent east to Borisov; there they were murdered, and their burial place is unknown.
At the same point in time, we began hearing fragments of news about extermination camps and the destruction of Jewish communities in faraway places. All of that spurred us on in our efforts to obtain weapons and plan our escape into the forest. Inside the ghetto much of the population was against the idea of an armed uprising. Many were still convinced that work would save their lives, and they claimed that our actions would cause the Germans to kill not just us, but them, as well. Therefore, we decided to leave the ghetto as quickly as possible and go into the forest.
Going into the Forest
During this same time period, we tried to make contact with the partisan movement. We heard rumors from some farmers about armed groups in the forests, but they turned out to be unfounded. On the other hand, there were those among us who knew the area well from before the war. Some of them had worked, before the war, as quality supervisors of the trees which were cut down for use in industry or for export abroad. Others were natives of the towns in the area, and knew it very well. It was decided that our group would leave for the forests near the town of Sobotnik; that was the first plan, which to our good fortune did not come about. The population in that area was Polish, had a special hatred for Jews, and cooperated fully with the Germans.
Near the end of 1942, it was decided that a group would leave and try to make contact with the partisans. About twenty people were in the group, including Egnatz and Avraham, Chaim Kalmanovitch, Avrasha Levit. Zerach, a graduate of the Polish military officers’ school Zutra (Podhoronzobka) was the only one with any sort of military training. The group marched all night, and reached the villages in the area of the Niemen, in the hopes of making some kind of contact with the partisans but the matter was out of their hands, because no sort of organized movement of partisans existed there yet. Only a month later were some Soviet officers sent on foot, from behind Russian lines hundreds of kilometers away, to organize a partisanka. None of this was known to us at the time.
After a strenuous march, the group returned to the ghetto at dawn with nothing to show for their efforts. A day or so later, a rumor began to spread from those same villages through which our group had passed, tales of a regiment of partisans, heavily armed, which had passed through. Their imaginations worked very well; we knew the truth and found the rumors amusing.
Throughout the ghetto, our house was called “the house of the partisans” and my mother was known as “the mother of the partisans.” The driving force was Baruch Levin. After work, we would gather in Baruch’s space in the attic. We began amassing weapons of every kind from every possible place. As a result, the level of secrecy suffered, and there were cases of Poles offering Jews weapons, and then informing the Germans in order to receive a reward.
An incident such as that took place in January – February of 1943 to David-Lipa-Berkovitch. Another Jew, by the name of Tishma, was also involved. On one of the days when David brought food to us from the kitchen, the Jew Tishma stood in the doorway of the factory in which we worked. Next to him was a Christian Pole, the former neighbor of David-Lipa. Tishma wanted to find out from David-Lipa whether the Pole could be trusted, since he had offered to sell him some weapons. David told him, “This is a man I grew up with; of course you can trust him.” A couple of hours later, the Pole went to the Germans and notified them. Tishma was arrested, then tried to run away and was killed. David-Lipa was a very brave man. When he learned of Tishma’s arrest, he prepared his horse and sleigh and a pole, and stood at the entrance to the ghetto, to see what would happen. After a short time, he was approached by two S.S. men in a sleigh, who asked him where they would find the house of David-Lipa Berkovitch. David, without batting an eyelash, answered them in his German/Yiddish, and with hand gestures, “One, two, three, the fourth house.” The Germans went on their way to the fourth house, and David, with a clear conscience, went to his own house, the second in the row, got into his sleigh and drove off. After a while he joined the partisan company Isakrah (“spark” in Russian).
Here I want to tell the story of the courage shown by Leonek, the young refugee from Vilna. After his sister was executed, he was left alone and desolate. His appearance was that of a Polish Christian, and he spoke Polish fluently. Leonek would wander through the villages near Lida, and come into the ghetto from time to time to visit us at 15 Kholodna. I don’t remember how he came to be in contact with the partisans, but the connection existed and it was, in my opinion, the first contact between the partisans and the ghetto. Leonek was the one who led the first group to the Soviet partisanka, which was at first organized without commanders; those came later from the front lines, which during that winter were in the area of Smolensk, about 600 kilometers from Lida. The partisanka needed doctors, guides, and people who knew how to print newspapers. In the area of printing, one resident of Lida was particularly good: Eli Damshek, who succeeded in delivering printing equipment to the forest, devotedly and without fear. Next to the partisan headquarters, he set up a printing house from which he published a newspaper called Soviet Byelorussia, which was distributed throughout the area.
Through Leonek, the partisans found a channel to the ghetto. When I met him for the first time in the village of Rosalki in his house, which was close to the border with Lida, across his shoulders he carried a long Russian rifle, much larger than he was himself. He was active for several months, until a Pole from the same village informed on him. Leonek was caught and arrested, and put into prison. We were able to be in contact with him thanks to a Polish guard who helped us. Through the guard, Leonek sent a note with his last wish, that we should smuggle in a file to him, hidden in some bread, so that he could saw at the bars and escape. In the same note he wrote: “You have nothing to fear from me; the Germans will not get any information about the partisanka from me.” The guard didn’t get the chance to pass along the bread with the file to Leonek; he was executed, an anonymous Jewish hero, a partisan aged 12 or 13.
In the search for a surgical doctor the commander of the partisan headquarters was aided by Jewish partisans from the town of Zdzięcioł (Zhetl in Yiddish). They were the first to run away into the forest, and were of course the first to join in with the officers and soldiers of the Red Army who had decided not to live as German captives and instead lived hidden in various Byelorussian villages until they decided to fight back against the Germans. Among them was the hero of the partisans Eliyahu Kobensky, Dr. Atlas, who established the Jewish regiment in the puscha (dense forest) Lipiczany; there was also Kaplinski, the brother-in-law of Baruch Levin, and other Jews. Kaplinski was a known partisan leader and was murdered by his friends the Russians. In the ghetto of Lida lived and worked Chaim Noach Miasnik, a surgical doctor known throughout the area, a childhood friend of my father’s and a neighbor of ours before the war. Dr. Miasnik had been chief of surgery in a big hospital in Warsaw, the capital of Poland. At the start of the war, he decided to return to his mother in Lida, and thus he came to be with us in the ghetto. At the partisan headquarters, it was decided to send a few soldiers to bring him to the forest. In the first group that left with the help of Leonek to join the partisans in the forest were Zerach Arliuk, Egnatz and Avraham Paldon, Avrasha Levit, Chaim Kalmanovitch, Tiger, Yosef Fleisher, and others. They arrived and were absorbed into the Iskara unit.
After a short time, their activities became noticeable. Every night they activated mines and blew up trains. I remember that one night Zerach, who had been named leader of the demolition unit, came into the ghetto with several other fighters and showed up at our house. They checked the lines inside the ghetto for the trains that went east towards the front. A few nights later, we heard a loud explosion, about two or three kilometers from the ghetto. It turned out that a train carrying tanks had derailed and there were heavy casualties, dead and injured, amongst the tank crews. The medical staff working in the hospital wasn’t capable of treating so many injured people. The chief doctor, a Pole named Kosobovski, demanded that the Germans bring the Jewish surgeon Miasnik to help him operate on the German soldiers, otherwise he could not be held responsible for the lives of the injured. A couple of days later, I heard straight from the doctor that during the entire time he was in surgery, two S.S. officers stood next to him watching to ensure he didn’t bring about the deaths of the German patients. Dr. Miasnik said that it was the first time in his medical career that he actually enjoyed performing amputations.
Our group, under the leadership of Chiplavetz was comprised of about 50 men and women, ages 16 to 50. The intention was, according to the suggestion of my mother, to set off for the forests of Sobotnik, about 15 kilometers from the town of her birth, Lipnishki. That plan was never actualized.
Doylitko and Boltosh
At the same time, we were trying to find ways to equip ourselves with additional weapons. Help came, as expected, from two people I’ve already mentioned. The first was Jan Doylitko. During one of his visits with us, on his own initiative he told us we must go to join the partisans; we admitted we had thought of that, but in order to do so we needed to equip ourselves with weapons. Jan told us: “I will bring you two rifles, but I need to pay someone a sum of money in order to get them.” My mother gave Jan some money. After about a week had passed, Jan’s son Stach came to our house by way of the fence into the ghetto; he fell onto the floor in fear and began to cross himself; this was in January or February of 1943 in deep snow and severe cold. “The horse and sleigh are waiting outside the house closest to the ghetto,” he told us. “My father put the rifles between two boards under the sleigh. For as long as the rifles remain on the sleigh I am not to leave here. Do as you wish; the horse and sleigh can disappear for all I care.” Ya’acov Druck and I decided to go out to the sleigh, outside of the ghetto. At a distance of a dozen or so meters from the house where the sleigh stood was the point where the train crossed the Lida-Vilna road. A German guard was always stationed there, with militia from Polkasdoytsha from among the locals. The sleigh stood in full view of the guard post. Fearlessly and decisively, we approached the sleigh. Ya’acov and I were both wearing long, dark coats. Even today I cannot understand how the guards didn’t see us against that white background, from just a couple dozen meters away on a clear day. We must believe that someone was watching over us, or that the Germans just didn’t believe Jews were capable of such actions.
Another supply source of weapons was Boltosh. Boltosh had been connected with the Jews since his childhood. Later, he played on the Maccabi Lida soccer team. He was an excellent athlete, and had a great deal of physical strength. He was also enlisted to come to our aid, and he supplied us with two rifles. In the end, almost all of the men in our group were equipped with weapons. In our secret language, we called rifles “long” and pistols “short” (langer/kortzer). One time, Yosele, the son of Ya’acov Druck, got angry at his mother. He was a six year old boy who had overheard stories about something called “langer” or “kortzer” and knew that it must be kept a secret. Apparently one day he heard his father say something like, “I have a langer;” the child ran outside, with his mother Feygele in pursuit, and began shouting “My father has a langer!” Feygele put her hand over his mouth and brought him back into the house. When I met with him later, at Metuzdat Ze’ev in Israel, at his father’s memorial service, I reminded Yosele of that incident. He is now one of the experts in dental implants in Canada.
Through a liaison we learned that soon a guide would come to lead our group to the camp of the Bielskis at a distance of some 50 kilometers from Lida. This was supposed to happen at the beginning of April, 1943. And so it was. Two guides arrived, one was Moshele Minski, and the second was Feldman. To ease our exit from the ghetto, the ghetto police captain Stoletsky gave vodka to the German police assistants; thereby helping us to escape.
Boltosh, after everything he had done for us, remained our liaison in Lida. Since he lived in the suburb of Roshalki, everyone who was sent to us would stop first at his house to learn whether it would be possible to enter the ghetto, and to receive guidance. In the same manner the visitor would make his return journey, stopping at Boltosh’s house. After a few months of this, his neighbors reported him, and he was executed by the Germans.
The Second Attempt at Going into the Forest
Our guides gave us instructions to prepare to leave. Even before that, we had prepared the necessary items for an extended stay under field conditions. We had sewn a backpack for each person; we removed the weapons from their hiding place and we were ready to go. The plan was for us to go out in small groups by way of the gate in the direction of the Roshalki village. We would cross over the small bridge over the river and congregate on the right-hand side to wait for the remainder of our group to arrive. On the first night, we were unable to leave because our scouts informed us that the Germans had set up a guard on the bridge. The same was true on the second night. Since the group with the equipment and the weapons was ready, the Judenrat began to apply pressure not to linger in the ghetto, because it endangered the other residents; so it was decided to leave on the third night, no matter what – even if it came to a battle.
And so we left on the third night at 11:00, on the night of the first Seder of Passover. It was our own personal going out of Egypt. A week before we left, our friends had blown up the train tracks which brought supplies to the front. To clean the debris from the tracks, the Germans took groups of Jews from the ghetto. During their work, they discovered bottles of wine from the Rhine region, an excellent wine. When we left, we took several of those bottles, and during the march, after midnight, at a great distance from Lida, we felt thirsty and drank the wine. On our way, we were forced to go around the city; we could hear the German guards talking amongst themselves. We passed the army air field and went on into the night. After several hours of walking, we reached the river; the bridge had been burned. Our guides told us that this was the border between the area where the Germans were in control and the land of the partisans. A huge tree trunk stripped of branches had been laid across the river, and in the darkness we clasped hands and raced across the tree trunk. From there we continued on. Our guides believed in setting a quick pace, comfortable enough for them as they were wearing light clothes and unburdened by equipment, armed with only pistols and hand grenades. Each of us was carrying about 30 kilograms, not including rifles and 50 bullets, which made our journey all the more difficult.
At the end of the first night, we were completely worn out. That was an eventuality our guides had not taken into consideration. People literally fell down from exhaustion. For me personally it was difficult because I had had a problem with my leg since childhood. And so, just before morning, it was decided to hide in the small forest next to the village of Stiagli. In the darkness and confusion, my father and I were separated from the group. Previous to that, we had given our rifles to friends who had offered to ease our burden; thus we were, just before morning, positioned not far from our group but without weapons.
Not long before our own exit from the ghetto, guides had arrived to accompany Dr. Miasnik and Baruch Levin to the forest. That group was smaller than ours, and Baruch and his friend Velvel Kropsky had more weapons than people in the group. Baruch went out to look for young men who could join his group. He would approach people and ask them, “Would you like to come with us and join the partisans? Come!” If the young man replied, “I want to let my parents know” Baruch would pass him up and choose another young man. Thus his group went out heading west to the Lipinchka Forest. One of their guides was the brother-in-law of Baruch, the brother of Baruch’s wife who had been murdered. In the forest, Dr. Miasnik set up a hospital, underground and well-concealed, and there he saved the lives of hundreds of partisans. Several times the Germans circled that hospital, and never noticed it.
After we separated from the group that night, we managed, my father and I, to find some rest. After two or three hours, it was morning. I asked permission from my father to approach the nearby village, to see if I could get something for us to eat and drink. My father was not prepared to leave the forest, so I went alone. I knew that our group was to remain in the forest all day, and I thought I would search them out and join them. I entered the first house in the village, asked for food and drink, and turned to head back to the forest. From a distance I saw a cart hitched to a horse, with several uniformed people seated within. I tried to run away in the direction of the forest, but they noticed me and of course caught me. I heard the order in Russian: stop! and I understood that they were partisans. I explained to them that I was from the Lida ghetto, and that I was on my way to join the partisans, but had become separated from the rest of the group and had gone to request food in the village. When they asked why I had tried to run away, I explained that their uniforms had made me think they were Germans or Ukrainians in the service of the Germans. As it turned out, their uniforms were plunder from the Germans. It seemed they accepted my explanations, and they let me go on my way.
Return to the Ghetto
When I returned to the spot where I had left my father, I could find no sign of him. I learned later that he thought I had been captured by the Germans, and was going to lead them to him. The more I looked for him, the more carefully my father hid. During my search for my father, I discovered the location of the rest of our group. I left them to look again for my father, accompanied by a relative named Mordechai Basist and a few other friends, and yet again, out of fear my father continued to hide. In the evening, I was instructed by the supervisor and the guide named Feldman to return to the ghetto together with a young man named Simcha Grebaya, without any explanation as to why. And so I went on my way, without knowing the fate of my father. Simcha and I turned back towards the ghetto, and the rest of the group turned east and headed for the Niemen River.
It was already dark as we started back along the route we had taken the night before. Since we had already turned our weapons over to the group, Simcha and I were armed with only two hand grenades. Simcha was a refugee from Poland, and did not know the area, and so I became our guide, in spite of the fact that I did not know the area, either. I took the initiative and we started walking towards Lida. Occasionally we were forced to veer off the village path which we were on, whenever we sensed the movement of people whose character and allegiance we did not know. As we approached the air field, we went around it in an arc to the right. I suggested to Simcha that we take the Lida-Ivye road, to follow it until we reached the first houses and then turn right towards the forest, and from there to enter the village of Roshalki and from there enter the ghetto. Just before morning there was a heavy fog. We were hungry and thirsty, so we knocked on the door of one of the houses. A woman answered. We asked for something to drink, and she returned with a jug of cold milk. Her husband also came out of the house. They were older people. I recognized the husband immediately; he was Rosvitch, owner of the butcher shop. I asked him for directions to the ghetto, and with his help we arrived there. We entered the ghetto, and we each turned toward our own homes. I tapped on the window of the room where my mother slept. After the initial excitement had worn off, I explained to her the chain of events. They took me to a house down the lane and there I hid for two weeks.
About a month and a half before this, we had considered a different way to reach the forest. We thought about joining a group of about twenty people from the Varnova area. My mother’s cousin Chaya Kaplan and her husband Moshe were in contact with that group, the head of which was Chaya Kaplan’s brother. The brother sent a villager to Lida, on one of the hard winter days when everything was covered in snow. The villager’s task was to bring them to the hiding place of the group. Chaya and her husband asked us to join them. I was also to join them that day. Preparatory to leaving for the forest, the group asked for rifle bullets. The bullets were obtained, and hidden inside Chaya’s brassiere. When she left, she had dozens of bullets tied to her brassiere. We accompanied them out of the ghetto, but at the last moment I drew back and didn’t leave with them. Chaya’s husband Moshe carried their three year old child Avremele in his arms, and they were to meet up with the villager a few dozen meters from there. Suddenly, the bullets began to fall from Chaya’s brassiere. My mother immediately bent down to gather them up from the snow and to stuff them back into Chaya’s brassiere. “I’m dying! I’m dying!” shouted Chaya. My mother answered her, “Die! But be quiet!” And so we parted. Little did we know that about a year later we would meet again under very different circumstances, far from Lida, in the middle of the war.
I remember another sad incident from the same time. On one of my trips foraging for weapons, I managed to smuggle a broken rifle into the ghetto. After I had managed to hide a large part of the barrel, and after it had been repaired, we had a short-barreled rifle. Also part of the butt was sawed, and we got a sort of combination rifle-pistol. Basically, that was my first weapon. It was put in the hiding place for weapons, and we continued to look for more tools. As I’ve said, a relative of ours named Avraham, the son of my mother’s cousin, joined us after the destruction of the ghetto of Varnova. He worked far away and couldn’t take part in our meetings. Avraham got the mistaken impression that we had asked to leave without him. Since he knew about the weapons and where they were kept, one day he took the rifle-pistol, and left with a small group of young men from Varnova, headed for the Narotsh forest. His intention was to return to us after the preparations had been made, and to lead our family to their base. One day a young man approached me in the street and told me, “Avraham wants to see you.” I followed him, and in one of the houses on Postovska Street we were reunited. Avraham hugged me and kissed me, and said, “I’ve come to take you out of here.” I told him that I must tell my mother (Mother was the dominant one in our home). At this same time my father was suffering from a painful ulcer attack, and wasn’t really prepared to set off for the unknown. “I will die there” he used to say, and I would tell him, “You’ll die there, and not from the bullet of a murderer.” Anyway, I went to my mother and told her about Avraham’s offer. Her response was that if he were capable of doing such a thing to us, we never wanted to see him again. Meanwhile, we collected another two rifles, one which had been repaired, and the other we got from Doylitko.
As I mentioned earlier, the two guides Minski and Feldman refused to include Ya’acov Druck and his family in the first group, because of their six year old son, Yossele. One day, when I was still in my hiding place in the ghetto, my mother came to me and told me we would be leaving that night. My mother did not join the first group because, due to information obtained from Doylitko, we learned of an army radio receiver that was in the home of one of the villagers. Someone needed to stay behind and wait to get the receiver from the villager; my mother was the one who stayed. That night our group gathered together: my mother and I, Ya’acov Druck, his wife Feygele and their son Yossele, Feigele’s grown brother and their sixty-year-old father; Beryl Shebhovitch and his wife, their son Ya’acov and my cousin David Boyerski. Our guide arrived, and we learned he was Reuven Rubenstein, a relative of ours, a blond youth with a handsome face and a good soul. He quietly told us to follow him, and we left the ghetto by the same way we had left it the first time, though the manner of walking was different, for Reubke led us at a comfortable pace until we had crossed the river over the familiar tree trunk from the last time. We entered the village of Stiagli, where we met the representative of the partisans. The man allocated certain houses to us, where the owner prepared food and drink for us. After we had finished eating, we lay down fully clothed on beds and tried to sleep. It was about six or seven in the morning. After two or three hours, they brought carts hitched to horses and coachmen from the village, and we sat down and continued on our way. After a few hours, we reached a village called Bornos, which sat on the banks of the Niemen River, and the carts went back to whence they came.
There we met a group of partisans from the Isskara unit, one of whom was an unusual character, a partisan named Poltora Ivna (Iben and a half). The man was huge, tall and wide. He carried a Mauser gun in his shirt pocket and a heavy machine gun with a disk on his shoulders. The impression was tremendous; here we were, in the light of day, in a completely different world. Aside from a few anti-Semitic comments, the behavior of the partisans was tolerable. We didn’t pay much attention to them. Reuven arranged boats for us. According to an order from the Germans, the villagers were forbidden from having boats. The villagers, according to instructions from the partisans, drilled holes in the bottom of the boats and sank them in the river. They would bring them back up on the instructions of the partisans. Our villager brought up his own boat, plugged the holes, and with his help we crossed the Niemen to the other side. After a short time, in the evening, we reached the village of Olhovka. We entered a house in the middle of the village, where an evening meal of fish awaited us. I remember the taste of that meal even today.
That night they again arranged carts for us, and we continued on our way east towards the Lida- Nowogródek road, not far from the railroad bridge and a large fabric and glass factory called Niemen. The place, which had been fortified and contained a company of German soldiers and their collaborators, caused the partisans a great deal of difficulty, and later was destroyed. A few kilometers from Olhovka we heard, coming from the darkness, the sound of riders approaching. In the areas where the partisans were in control, there were passwords for each and every area. So we stopped, and the riders also stopped. After an exchange of passwords, we learned we had met up with a group of 5 or 6 riders and their leader, Tuvia Bielski.
We had known Tuvia Bielski since the time of the Soviet rule. Tuvia would come to Lida from his hometown on business from the factory in which he worked as the head bookkeeper. It was his habit to come to our house. From our first meeting I remember being impressed by his height and size. When he came in the door, Tuvia would bow his head, automatically. And so I remember him up until today – a huge man. He checked who was in our group, and when he heard our names (he knew us all personally) he said, “Thank God you have already left the ghetto; continue on to the base, they are waiting for you.” We parted, and each group continued on its way. next >>
English translation by Samin Translations, Netanya, Israel.