WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
The Land of the Partisans; The Bielski Unit
To read Chaim
Basist's original story, written in Hebrew, click
The Land of the Partisans
After some time had passed (it was difficult to know how much time) we drew near the Lida- Nowogródek Road. We sent the carts and villagers back; it was morning, the first light of day. We carefully approached the road, looking tensely to either side. Vehicles with Germans in them drove past, and only when there was a break in the traffic did we cross the road to the other side.
We continued on our way in daylight, in the paths of the forest. After about an hour, a horseman approached us. As he drew near, I recognized him; it was Zalman Berkovitch, from our town. He was riding a horse loaded with equipment, a rifle across his shoulders and wearing a hat with a red star on it. Zalman instructed us to continue in the direction of the unit’s position. After about another half hour’s walk, we met the guards and entered the base of the unit. In the center we saw a kitchen with a huge metal cook pot hanging over a bonfire by two reinforced stakes. Next to that was a well dug 2 by 2 meters, surrounded with tree branches, with water for cooking and drinking inside. All around were huts made of tree branches and lots of people, each busy with his own task. Not far from there, just a few kilometers, were Germans sitting in their closed and fenced fortresses.
After a short time we were reunited with the rest of the people from our group, who had arrived before us in the first group to leave the ghetto, including my father and my sister. I had finally found my father. It turned out that, after I had left him, he thought I had fallen into the hands of the Germans and decided to hide. The villagers noticed him and informed the partisans, who caught him. He was brought to the base of the Isskara unit when it was thought he was a spy for the Germans. To his good fortune, the Jewish doctor Broyna Kibilbich, a man from Lida and a childhood friend of my father’s, heard of this. He asked to see the “spy” and my father told him his story. With his intervention, my father was freed and placed with a villager, who was instructed to take good care of him. The nutritious food he received there improved the state of his health. After about a week of living there, there came to the Isskara unit a group of horsemen from the Bielskis. When they learned that my father was there in the care of a villager, they put him on a horse and brought him to their base.
As has been said, the head of the first group I went out with was Tsipelvitz. That group did not make the journey in the right way. They did not go to villages, and instead of enlisting the help of villagers, they hid the group in the thicket of the forest. For lack of drinking water, they ate the snow on the sides of the roads. Tsipelvitz, who also drank the melted snow, sickened with a bad case of dysentery. He knew his situation and tried to kill himself, but the bullet in his gun was a dud and his weapon was taken from him. Though the doctors tried to care for him, they decided that his situation was hopeless. Acting on orders, they gave him an injection of drugs that put him to sleep permanently.
In western Byelorussia there were two ethnic groups, Catholic Poles and Byelorussians, some of whom were Catholic, and some Proboslovians. The area most supportive of the Red Partisans was those of the Proboslovians, in the east and north, usually close to the former border between Poland and the Soviet Union. Therefore, most of the partisan bases were located there. In the other places, the groups operated in a mobile manner, without a fixed base; every three or four days they would change the place where they slept.
The Bielski Unit
The Bielski unit, or by its official name, the Kalinan battalion, in the Kirov brigade, was located in a sensitive region called Hota-Shakalna near Nowogródek, and it needed to be run accordingly.
After a short time we reached the company and began to learn how to survive under the conditions in which we found ourselves. We learned how to maintain basic cleanliness, to build roofs from tree branches, and anything a person would need to know. We learned to acclimatize to changes in the weather, to reduced portions of food, and to the addition of greens from nature, in order to avoid the disease tzinga. We adapted for ourselves a familiarity with the forest - with directions, with finding footprints, and how to light a fire in the rain. How to survive in the harsh winter weather was something we learned during the second part of the partisan experience.
One of the things we were forced to learn was how to deal with the infestation of lice that afflicted us all. We came up with an efficient solution: we hung the infested clothes over a fire; the lice would fall into the fire and explode with a popping sound. In the partisanka we also developed our own way of talking; for example, most of the women became involved with a man, who would protect them, and they were called “tabu” from the Russian word “etabu” (his). People who fled the ghettos and arrived without weapons were called “milbosh”; to this day I have no idea why.
Some especially cruel laws were in effect in the forest for people we did not know, whom we found wandering in the forest. The Germans would send women and men too, to look for partisans in the forest. Sometimes we would notice something white moving up and down, and we would quickly discover that it was the headscarf of a village woman. After a brief questioning, it would come out that the woman was not a local, but was sent by the Germans. Since we were close to a place where the Germans were encamped, we could not risk a shot. There was among us a small, very thin Jew with the appearance of a naïve young boy, named Michaele. On the orders of the commander of the camp, he would, with one stroke of a small axe, execute the spies who had been caught.
We also became acquainted with the chain of command; at the head were the Bielski brothers: Tuvia was the chief commander; his second-in-command Asael, who was the commander of the fighting branch of the unit. From him we learned how to guard and how to behave with the local populace.
The chief of staff was Melvin, a man of medium height, about 45 years old, who stuttered. Every day, after listening to the news on Informabioro from Moscow, he would line us up and read the news to us. Because he had a stutter, he would read the news to us very quickly, and thus he would be able to read without stuttering.
The head of the patrol unit was Tuvia Bielski’s brother Zusya, a very strong and tall young man. The politrok of the battalion was a man who had been in the Russian army, of Georgian extraction, a very handsome and tall man named Grisha. We liked him because of his pleasant temperament. We gave him the nickname Grisha of the Wooden Head, because he always believed the stories we told him, without ever checking if they were true. Thus we spent many days in that universe, learning from the veterans about life in the forest.
At that time, there were about 300 men and women in the unit, and a number of children, mostly Jews who had fled the Nowogródek ghetto. The core of the unit was made up of a few families: the Bielskis, the Bolda family, and the Diantselski family, altogether a few dozen souls. After a while, the unit began taking action against the Germans, such as cutting down telephone poles, burning bridges, explosions, and the destruction of food which was prepared for the Germans in the villages; they also killed collaborators and German deputy policemen. The unit’s activities became widely known; the Germans put a high price on the Bielski’s heads. The rumors of their actions even reached the Jews still trapped in the ghettos of Nowogródek, Lida, and other towns, and encouraged many people to escape into the forest. And so the unit grew and joined on as the sixth battalion of the brigade Kirov. The man in charge of the brigade was a party man and a political officer in the Red Army named Sinitzkin; after the war he was named a Hero of the Soviet Union. The man was a big anti-Semite.
Every person in the unit had a defined task; one group was responsible for guarding the base; the second dealt with gathering supplies; a third handled scouting and gathering intelligence; a fourth was responsible for policing and keeping order on the base, as well as maintenance and transporting equipment. My mother was put in charge of the kitchen. During this time, the unit was growing; every day more and more people arrived and the requirements grew. Supplying all of those people with even the minimum of their needs, like food, medical care and everyday items such as soap and clothing, was a very important mission.
The law of the partisans decreed that the group not remain in any one place for very long, and so after a short time we received orders to move on. Of course we, the fighters, did not know where we were going. We managed, after evening formation, to each gather together our belongings, line by line, with a patrol man at the head of each line, and with horsemen going up and down the lines on both sides. The equipment of the unit was loaded onto carts. In this manner, we found ourselves leaving the camp. We moved towards the Lida-Nowogródek road; as we crossed the road it was getting dark. Then we entered the forest. We stopped after a walk of about 20 kilometers and were given the order to settle in. In the morning, a small group set off to find a source of water and dig a well; a second group began constructing a storage shed for food from tree trunks. We began building tents from tree branches and blankets. The kitchen was not yet operational, so everyone prepared his own meal with the foodstuff he was given. At the time we were still connected, as far as food and sleeping arrangements went, with the group with whom we had left Lida.
In the morning, we learned we were in a place called Yesinovka, not too far from a village named Zorbialnik. Our tents were situated in a thicket and surrounded the tent of the headquarters. At a distance of about 550 meters from the thicket was the transportation unit, in a grove of tall pine trees which accommodated the transportation horses and those of the patrols. In order to reach it we had to cross a clearing surrounded by bushes. The area was guarded on all sides. About 4 kilometers from the camp, on the paths leading into the camp was a group of between 2 to 6 men plus a rider, waiting in ambush. The rider’s task was to connect the camp to the group in the event of an unexpected occurrence. The security measures included a mounted group on patrol in the surrounding area in a diameter of about 20 kilometers. One of their tasks, among others, was to go into the villages and, with the help of trustworthy villagers, gather information on the movements of the German army in the area.
In our area, a partisan guard was set even during daylight hours. Every village had a commandant (the partisan in charge). Every regiment was assigned a specific area, where we were allowed to obtain food and clothing. The role of the commandant or person in charge was to assign to each village a quota of supplies which it was required to provide to the unit. This was how it worked in the villages which were loyal to the Soviet government. From the villages that cooperated with the Germans, we were allowed to take anything except cows or the last of any type of animal. The villages that cooperated with the Germans, received weapons from them, and fought against us were not protected by our laws, and we were allowed to take anything from them. Whoever was discovered to be against us was shot to death.
Every one of us was assigned a job, as I’ve said. Mine was to guard the camp. I lived in a tent with other guards, and after a few hours of sleep, I would go out to perform my guard duty for several hours. I did not have a watch, so I used my senses to determine whether it was morning, afternoon, evening or night. Of all my friends, there remained at this time just Leibele Tzipelvitz, Laser Yeziarski, and myself. Every so often, when we were exempted from work, which usually happened at night, we would meet and discuss all of our troubles.
Not far from where we were camped in Yesinovka, there lived a villager in an isolated house. He had a piece of land and a farm that included cows and pigs. In an agreement with us, his son served as a policeman for the Germans and would from time to time pass along helpful information to us regarding the movements of German army units and the like. Unbeknownst to us, they worked as double agents. In spite of the fact that it was forbidden for villagers to enter the area in which we were camped, they knew where our camp was, and a few times were even guests at our base. To our good fortune, they did not know where our guards were stationed, nor did they know the password. It turned out that the son, who had become a policeman for the Germans through an agreement with us, had given the Germans our exact position. It took the Germans a few days to gather their forces, but one day before dawn they began to encircle the place where we were located. In the darkness, their patrols spotted our ambush, which was about 4 kilometers from the main camp. A gunfight began, and according to procedure our rider raced his horse to camp to alert those at headquarters. At the first sound of gunshots, we were already ready.
We received orders to cross the clearing that separated us from the transportation area, and one company set up a line of defense facing the thicket where we had been before. My mother remembered that she had left some things, including our documents, behind and asked for permission from one of the commanders to return to the tent for them. She was given permission but told to return immediately. She collected the things, and wrapped them in a blanket, tying it onto her back in the manner of the villagers, and started back to us. Near a shed containing necessities, she heard people speaking in Russian. She was sure that these were friends of ours. As she drew nearer, she saw two men in German uniforms standing before her, armed with submachine guns. They motioned for her to approach them. My mother did not lose her wits; she turned and began running away from them towards us. The German scouts, who were as it turned out Valsovs, known for their cruelty, began shooting at her. My mother remembered that we had been taught, in a situation such as this, to run in a zigzag, and she did so. In spite of that, a few bullets struck the pack on her back and she was forced to remove it, since there was smoke coming from it from the hits by the phosphor bullets.
When we heard the shooting, we began searching for a way through the siege; we tried to go forward in several directions, without success. The Germans employed heavy weaponry, mortars and cannons; they even used tank units in the paths between different parts of the forest. Only after great effort were we able to find a way out of the blockade they had imposed and escape. Each of us, in our flight, tried to free ourselves of our cargo. Even I threw off my knapsack from my back and was left with just a rifle and bullets during a crazy flight of several kilometers heading west, towards the Niemen River. The unit did not operate in an organized fashion; everyone acted according to his own instincts. During my escape, I became separated from the unit and was left alone with three other people. Shortly thereafter, I found myself all alone, next to a village not far from the place where the Germans were stationed on the banks of the Niemen.
I hid in a field of tall wheat and watched the village. There was no unusual movement, I saw only a villager who set out with his cart in my direction. When he drew near, I jumped from the wheat with my rifle raised and shouted, “Stop!” Out of fear, the goy stopped his horse, which reared up on its hind legs. The villager shouted, “Jesus Mary!” I asked him the name of the village, and if there were Germans there. When he told me the name of the village, Pudin, I relaxed. They were supporters of ours, and many of their sons were partisans. I entered one of the houses and asked for food and drink. After I had sated my hunger, I went looking for the mayor of the village. I asked him to provide me with a ride in the direction of the village of Olhovka, about 10 kilometers from where we were. The man said to me, “Listen, the Germans were here this morning, and they’re all over this area. No one in the village will be willing to take you, even if you kill him. And besides, your unit is in Dakodobo, and that’s in a different direction.” I asked him to provide me with a guide; he turned to his mother, a woman of about sixty, and asked her to show me the way. And so, accompanied by the woman, I started walking. After a fairly long walk, we could see the Niemen River in the distance, and to the west of it, the village of Dakodobo. I sent the woman on her way and continued on my own. After a while, I saw two people approaching me. I cocked my rifle and continued, tense and ready. We stood facing each other, about 20 meters apart. One of the men held a hand behind his back, and I was very tense. We exchanged greetings, and from that I could tell that they were partisans, residents of the village I had just left. They told me that most of my unit was indeed located at Dakodobo. They asked me how things were in their village; I told them what I knew and we parted peacefully. From there I approached the river. The villager who had taken those I had spoken to across the river was by then on the other side. I ordered him to return, and he did so and brought me across in his boat. In the village I found we had already stationed guards; one could feel there was already some sort of organization. I searched for my family and found my father and my sister. None of us knew what my mother’s fate had been, nor indeed that of another 60 to 70 people from our company. The owner of the house prepared a meal for us, and then I fell asleep on the floor through sheer exhaustion.
In the evening we received orders to gather on the bank of the river. We were told that the Germans were advancing from the direction of Lida and we needed to cross the river. There wasn’t time or the opportunity to make the trip across in boats; we had to cross on foot. We crossed at a spot where the villagers usually took their herds of cattle across. It was about 1.5 meters deep there. Once we had made the crossing, we were ordered to take up positions along the bank. We were cold and wet, teeth chattering and our morale low. We had just started to get dry when we got the order to go back across the river. I felt like crying, but we had no choice and went back into the water and crossed to the bank on the other side. Once again we were ordered to take up positions, and then once again to cross the river. That night we crossed the river several times. At one point I remember lying next to two brothers-in-law. The older, Aronovitch, was from my town, and was about 35 years old. Before the war he had had a store on Sovlaska Street, where he sold items made from gold, and also watches. Next to him was Moshele Forman, the brother of his wife, who was about 18 years old and was a relative of mine (his older brother had gone to Eretz Yisrael in 1939; he was called Shaul Galili, and he was one of the commanders in Lehi, those brave fighters against the British, who escaped with another twenty people through the tunnel in Latrun, was jailed and killed in the detention camp in Eritrea). I overheard Aronovitch say to his brother-in-law, “Look, we can expect to die at any moment; there’s no way we will be saved. Let’s go back to Lida. For as long as we continue to live, we’ll live like human beings. Here, we can expect to die like hunted animals.” The times were very difficult, and some of the commanders felt that a small unit had a better chance of survival than a large one, so they let them leave. They returned to the ghetto of Lida, and about half a year later were murdered in Majdanek.
After a day or two, we got the order to move on. We were left without any means of transportation, and no equipment. Everything had fallen into the hands of the Germans. One of the partisans, named Pinya, decided to hide in the branches of a big tree and had watched as the Germans gathered up and took away everything that had been at the base. Since we could not continue on our way without a means of transportation or food, a few small groups were sent to find transport and supplies. At this time, we did not know the fate of about 70 people who were still missing. At nightfall, we set out walking toward the east; we covered about 30 kilometers a night. I remember that as we passed near a village called Morin, it became very difficult for me to walk. A cousin of my father’s helped me, but suddenly we realized that we had become separated in the darkness from the rest of our group. The sun started to rise and we realized we were in an open field, with only a few bushes here and there. We had no choice but to lie down under one of the bushes, and there we fell asleep. In the morning we discovered that we were between the Niemen River and the last houses of the village of Morin. I suggested to Mordechai that we go into the village to find something to eat, and perhaps even locate a horse and wagon so that we could catch up to our unit. Mordechai refused, because he feared there were Germans in the village. In the end, as evening approached, we were both exhausted, and I decided to enter the village. Mordechai felt he had no choice, so he agreed to join me. As soon as we entered the village we bumped into Leibel Orshovsky, whom we were very happy to see. As it turned out, we had made the right decision.
Leibel took us to the commandant (chosen by the partisans to supervise the village), who decided to have us taken to the other side of the Niemen, since occasionally Germans would come to Morin. He gave instructions to one of the villagers, who took us to the other side of the river in his boat. After about a half-hour’s walk we reached a village called Karibitzi. We talked to the commandant of the village, and he took us to a house where an evening meal and, of course, beds were waiting. We were so exhausted that we fell asleep immediately. In the morning, the lady of the house fixed us a proper breakfast; afterwards, a horse and wagon awaited us, to take us on our way. This was a most unusual village. There were no gates or doorways to the houses. Each house was encircled by a fence, and in order to enter you needed to climb up on a sort of bench. Only in the backs of the houses, facing the fields, was there a gate for going out to care for the animals. We sat in the wagon, which had a layer of straw in it covered with a rough blanket, and set off towards the east and the Niemen. It was a good feeling; the weather was lovely, and for a moment we forgot that all around us a cruel war was being waged.
After about two or three hours (we didn’t have watches, so we estimated time using our senses) we reached a place called Little Izboysk; here we parted from the wagon driver. We needed to cross to the other side of the Niemen, so we boarded the ferry (the locals called it “From”), which the ferry operator pulled across the river with the aid of a rope. We asked the people next to us, all of them villagers from Parboslaveem and supporters of the partisans, what the state of affairs was in the area. They said things were quiet and that they did not expect an incursion by the Germans in the next day or so; this calmed us. We reached the opposite bank at a place called Big Izboysk, and we rejoined our unit which was located nearby. From there, we could walk openly in the daylight. Many partisan units were concentrated in that area and the Germans didn’t dare to show their faces there, except in large numbers. We knew that from here we were headed into the heart of partisan territory in the Naliboki Forest. After a two-day walk, we passed by the town of Lobtashi, which was still under German control. We had a lot of family in that town; my grandmother, from my mother’s side, was among the residents there. It was the first time in my life I had been in this area; there were huge forests of pine and birch. From time to time they would distribute food to us, though it wasn’t enough to satisfy our hunger. Our people, who were sent to bring back food, did the best they could.
We continued marching east, and came to a deep river called Bayrozka. It was decided to pause in that spot for a few days. We found ourselves preparing for a longer stay, since people were being sent out on various missions. One morning, one of our partisans arrived riding a horse; he brought me greetings from my mother. I said, “You’re joking!” but he answered “No, your mother is fine and manages the kitchen at headquarters, for about fifty people at the Krasnagorka base.” He explained that in about a week they would be joining us. Meanwhile, they were stationed near the river, rehabilitating the unit and from time to time sending out fighting units on various missions. After the events of the past month, every day that passed gave us the opportunity to grow stronger, physically and mentally. Here we also learned the extent of our losses from the attack in Yesinovka. It turned out we had about 15 casualties and a small number of injuries. The dead were buried by the citizens of the village Zorbialnik, in a mass grave.
Among the dead was the mother of my friend Leibele Chipelvitch and Moshele Saviatoy, a young man from Lida. It turned out that the first group of guards, who encountered the Germans and opened fire on them, were killed. They forced the Germans to stop, giving us time to get organized, and preventing us from suffering larger losses relative to the size of our unit. Our mourning for those who had fallen was submerged in worry over the difficult, everyday problems of survival we currently faced. We simply didn’t have much time to think about things that had already happened.
Finally, the group arrived with Tuvia, and we – after a month – were joyously reunited with Mother. The very next day, we crossed the Bayrozka, a deep river with raging waters. We forded the river in boats; those on horseback crossed by swimming. It took several hours, and then we continued to head east. We entered a heavily wooded area with all kinds of trees. It was the first time in my life I had seen such sights, so many water sources. The road on which we traveled was built entirely of wood, of a width of 10 centimeters, to prevent one from sinking into the muddy ground. From afar, we could see what looked like chimneys; at first, we didn’t understand what we were seeing. But as we drew closer we understood that we had reached a settlement that had been destroyed by the Germans in one of their incursions into the area. They had burned everything, and only the chimneys remained. The citizens who were not able to run away into the forest were killed, or were taken captive and sent to Germany and forced into slave labor there. The further we advanced, we encountered, over and over again, burned villages. It turned out that the entire area had been emptied of its settlements; before us sprawled a destroyed land. After a few days, we reached the area of the town of Pothshania, the last settlement before the forest.
In the Naliboki Forest
We arrived in the Naliboki Forest. This forest, which was several million square kilometers in size, took several weeks to cross. Fortunately for us, the weather in early May was beautiful. Occasionally we were forced to hide when German observation planes appeared overhead, but that didn’t worry us much since at that time the Germans were situated a few dozen kilometers from us. We continued deeper into the forest and beheld there a wondrous sight – an inhabited village settlement! As it turned out, deep in the forest there were several such settlements that the Germans had not managed to reach. The people there were extremely poor, and subsisted on fishing and cottage industries. Before the war, they had made a living from felling trees and transporting them by way of canals to the Niemen River, and from there to the Baltic Sea. They lived in one-room homes made of unprocessed wood. In the center of the room was a place for a fire for cooking, which also served to heat the home during the cold winter days. For lighting, they used very thin beams of pine wood about 1.5 meters long, which they would light and stick into the roof, changing them about every ten minutes. They called these beams “lotshinsky.” The people were quite simple, and the partisans supported them by providing them with the essential items they needed and with medical care from the doctors in the units.
Because of the physical demands of our daily exertions, we burned a lot of calories and were always hungry. Food was not provided regularly, and because we were always on the move they would give us reduced rations. We formed small groups, combined our food, then cooked and shared it. My mother cooked for us. We would share our food with a few people, among them a pleasant young man who was a yeshiva graduate with a rabbi’s certificate named Rochman. He became very close to our family. One morning, Leibel Orjhovsky was supposed to set out on horseback on patrol, but when he approached the horse he was kicked. A commander, who was nearby and saw the horse acting wildly, shot and killed him. Within moments we had butchered the horse, and after ten minutes all that remained was the skeleton. We cooked the meat and shared the meal with everyone. Even Rochman, who was a very religious man, partook of the meal, explaining that the mitzvah of saving a life took precedence over all and that we must eat in order to keep up our strength and carry on with our lives under very difficult conditions.
We continued onward, and as we learned later, we drew close to the Jewish town called Mir. We were instructed by the main commander to build a camp in that area. It was the middle of June, and the days were sunny. We began to organize for an extended stay: we built tents from blankets and tree branches, set up a general kitchen, and conducted a seemingly normal life. Every day they would relate to us the news from Radio Moscow. We learned that movement at the front had been halted, and there was no major activity; both the Russians and the Germans were hoarding their strength before the next battle.
We felt relatively safe in that place, because there were many brigades of partisans all around us, the main reason being that the commander, General Platon (real name Chernyshev) was himself in that location. The paths into the forest were blocked by felled, interlaced trees. Many berry plants grew in the area, and the fruit was just ripening at that time. We used to gather the fruit and eat it with great appetite. In our free time we played various sports. I remember, among other things, many sports competitions, including horseback riding, at which Stradaborsky, the father of my girlfriend Bayla, was outstanding. He was about 50 years old and in his youth had served for several years in the Czar’s cavalry. He would put on demonstrations for us, riding at top speed and slipping down under the belly of the horse while under direct fire. Russian soldiers, who themselves had served in the cavalry of the Red Army, couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw his performances.
During that time, many people got sick with the bothersome skin disease scabies, and we were covered with suppurating sores. The doctors explained to us that we had been infected with the disease by the horses. Since there was no sulfur-based medicine in the area, they recommended that we use an ointment made from processed pine tree roots (which were also used to make turpentine). We rubbed that sticky black ointment on from our ankles to our ears. We looked horrible, like Cushites, but it worked. After two weeks we removed the ointment with boiling water and returned to our normal appearances.
At night around the campfire, we would sing songs in Russian, Yiddish and Polish. One of our best singers was Monyick Peshpiorko, a gaunt and sickly Polish lad. He sang at various opportunities, including meetings with friends from other units. I particularly remember one evening, when we sat with Meir-Yoshe Itzkovitch, a native of the town of Divenishok, in the Lida area. Meir had been a Hebrew teacher in a secondary school in Vilna and was a long-standing member of Beitar. After a glass of vodka, he would try to cheer us by telling us that one day we would march in the streets of Tel Aviv (in the 1960s, during the demonstration in Tel Aviv against the compensation to Holocaust survivors from Germany, we did march in a line and I reminded Itzkovitch of his prophetic words). At that time, it was hard to believe such a thing would ever happen. We would laugh at him and call him “crazy.” When we would meet, Itzkovitch would bless us and shout “Tel Hai!” The Russian partisans would ask us, what is “hai hai”? They liked Meir, who drank vodka and smoked long cigarettes of tobacco wrapped in newspaper, usually Pravda (“truth”). We called him Chipev, after a partisan commander from 1918. We carried on with the routine of the partisan camp, and from time to time people were sent to make contact with the Jews remaining in the ghettos of Lida and Nowogródek who wanted to join us.
One evening I was given the assignment of responsibility for the camp. My job was mainly to check on all of the guard posts every two hours, and to make sure the guards were changed on time. Between my rounds, I was allowed to sleep, usually in the kitchen, which was mostly a big bonfire with a huge vat over it. It was always hot there, and to pass the time we would put potatoes or beets into the coals and eat them with great gusto. This time, I fell asleep and was awakened by shouts and howls that sounded like wolves. I thought wolves were attacking the horses and cows that were on the base nearby. As I ran through the darkness towards the commander’s tent to let him know what was happening, I passed by the camp doctor’s tent. It turned out that the bizarre howls I heard were coming from there, and I remembered that the same day three partisan women had arrived to have abortions performed; thus the sounds I had heard. The next morning, we were spotted by a reconnaissance plane and we scattered into the forest. There I came across three fetuses. I remembered the night before, and understood.
A group of about 120 people from the Nowogródek ghetto succeeded in digging a tunnel. About 25 were killed during the escape, and the remainder succeeded in joining us. From Lida, only small groups continued to arrive. Because of the rumors about conditions in the forest which were put about by those who had returned to the ghetto, not many people dared to join us.
The Germans are Coming
After about a month, we began to feel that the situation was changing. Groups of partisans going out on missions to obtain food or information, or to cause damage, were encountering Germans. It became clear that the activity of the Germans was growing stronger. One incident happened in our unit, under the leadership of the politruk (political commissar) Grisha. We encountered a unit of Germans in the area around the village of Morin. Grisha decided to withdraw with the group and cross the Niemen River to the other side; the villagers were afraid to help. On Grisha’s initiative, a boat was taken up from beneath the water and, because only he knew how to navigate, he began to transfer people across the water himself while standing in the middle of the boat. In that manner Grisha successfully transferred most of the unit, including my cousin David Boyerski. On the last passage, the Germans began pouring down the high slope of the riverbank, shooting with machine guns at the boat. Grisha was able to get to the other side of the river, but was shot and fell, lifeless, into the water. Of the passengers in the boat, a lad from Lida named Herschel Kamionski was badly hurt; the rest were slightly injured. We got them out of the boat and retreated. Thus Grisha saved his friends, with leadership and a brave heart. His body was found by villagers about 20 kilometers away, near Isboisk. The villagers, who had liked the polite and handsome Grisha, arranged a fitting funeral for him.
Meanwhile, we received intelligence from central headquarters that the Germans were gathering together a force of several divisions from the front and were planning to cleanse the area of partisans and to exterminate us. The order to retreat came down to us, and to the other brigades, including one called the Polish Legion, which was made up entirely of the Poles of Andres. The bases were to be moved deep into the forest to a muddy area where it wasn’t possible to travel by motorized vehicles such as tanks or armored transport. The fighting units took up forward defensive positions; for about two weeks there was heavy fighting. At the same time, some of us received orders to build a bridge from tree trunks, which were sawed and placed on top of the swamp for a distance of three kilometers and a width of two meters, in order to facilitate a retreat with our equipment if necessary, and then to dismantle the trees in order to prevent the Germans from pursuing us.
The Germans attacked in force from the air and with artillery. They were joined by units from the Vlasov Army. Our fighters ran out of ammunition. The decision was made to retreat. We stood in rows and were given the order to equip ourselves with necessities. It was twilight as we approached the supply shed, each one in turn, and put into sacks everything we could grab. To tell the truth, I didn’t even know what I was taking, but it turned out to be wheat seed. We soon discovered that thanks to the undigested wheat seed, we were able to find our friends in the depths of the forest; we simply followed the signs.
At about the same time, Yocheved and Menachem Resnick were located in a camp in Kiryat Toref near Vilna. They were sent there by the underground movement in the Vilna ghetto, to establish communications between the partisans and the underground in the ghetto. The camp was located in a forest about 30 kilometers from Vilna. Menachem, along with some others, received instructions to join a partisan company and begin activities against the Germans, while Yocheved remained in the camp, working to transfer people from the underground to the fighting units in the forest. We knew that there were several partisan units working in the Vilna area, in the forests of Rudnicki and Natasha. Those forests were located a few hundred kilometers northwest of the Naliboki Forest. Communications with them were very unstable, and only occasionally would we receive information from them. In the other direction, about 200 kilometers southwest of Naliboki, in the Lipiczany forest, there were partisan brigades under the command of General Platon. Our communications with those units was much tighter and sometimes we met up with Jewish fighters from those units; in that framework was the highly-praised Jewish company of Dr. Atlas.
Dr. Atlas, a medical doctor by profession, decided when the Germans entered to establish a Jewish fighting unit. “From here and now, I am a fighter, not a doctor,” he said. Among the known fighters in his company was a hero of the Soviet Union, Elihu Kovnaski who was famous for his great bravery in fighting the Nazi enemy.
In another place, between us and the Rudnicki Forest, Moshe and Chayale Kaplan were part of a group. We didn’t have any communication with them.
One day, the Germans became aware of Yocheved’s work as a liaison officer. Her role was to assign groups of fighters from the ghetto to companies in the forest. She was arrested and interrogated under severe torture, but the Germans were unable to break her spirit and they decided to execute her by hanging the following morning. Yocheved fell asleep and in her dream saw her father, who had died many years before. He spoke to her, saying, “My daughter, save yourself.” She woke up, and began searching for a way to escape. She was imprisoned in a wooden shack raised up on blocks. The floor was made of wooden boards, and she noticed that one of the boards was a bit loose. With super-human strength, she pulled on the board until it came free, and after that, another one. She lowered herself through the opening and crawled to the edge of the shack. The house was patrolled by an armed S.S. officer. She waited until he turned in the other direction, then ran in a crouch, climbed the fence, and entered the thicket. She knew the address of one of the partisan liaison officers in one of the towns, and she continued on her way through the thicket and the forest. When she reached the house of the liaison officer, the woman made the sign of the cross: she had thought Yocheved was already dead. When Yocheved asked where the fighters were, the woman replied that when it became known that Yocheved had been arrested, the unit had left and its whereabouts were unknown. Yocheved was hidden inside a pit in the dairy barn in inhuman conditions. Only at night did she come out for food and physical exercise.
After a few days, the woman who owned the house told Yocheved that she could not continue to stay there and that she must go and find the partisans. Yocheved was forced to leave her hiding place and continue deeper into the forest. In one of the clearings in the forest stood the granary of a villager. A large Alsatian dog was chained outside the granary. With no other choice, Yocheved approached the dog and began petting him. A kind of friendship developed between the two, which allowed Yocheved to enter the granary, hide amongst the stacks of hay, and fall asleep. Even when the villagers came and began to go about their business, she continued to hide. Only when the people left at the end of the day did she emerge from her hiding place. The villagers would bring the dog large portions of food, enough for a few days. She shared the food with her new friend, and thus several days passed. During the day she would hide, and in the evenings come out of hiding. One day she encountered a young Jewish woman who had also run away into the forest and who had been hiding near the granary. They decided to search for the partisans together. After a few days’ search, they suddenly heard the rustle of cart wheels, and people speaking in Russian. They decided to approach them, and indeed it turned out they were partisans. One of them was a Russian soldier who had run away from captivity, and Yocheved had assigned him to the partisans. The two were very happy to meet. The group took the two women to the company. And thus Yocheved arrived in the Rudnicki Forest. Her husband Menachem was in Lipiczany, and we were in Naliboki, without any of us knowing the whereabouts of the others. We also did not know what had become of Avraham Bialitzki, whose company was located in the Naroch Forest, nor Moshe and Chaya Kaplan. My cousin David Boyerski was in the unit that was with us.
Breaking the Siege
Here I want to return to Naliboki, to the time when we equipped ourselves with whatever came to hand. We stood in rows, organized into groups of four. It was dark, and we could hear the sound of gunshots. Then bullets and shells began to fly through the air. Close by, there was a strong movement in the direction of the bridge we had built over the swamp. We were told that the Germans were attacking the camp of the Polish Legion. We couldn’t understand why we were just standing there, and not moving towards our bridge with everyone else. A short time later, we were given orders to turn in the opposite direction and we began to move. Our battalion numbered some 440 people, some of them women and children. We left behind the equipment of the camp, including a large number of horses and cows. We took about 15 riding horses for the patrolmen. After we had been moving for about an hour, we encountered a muddy area; the farther we went, the deeper we found ourselves standing in mud. It got to the point where we were forced to leave behind the horses, which got stuck in the mud and go on without them. We continued forward, even when, from every side, we could hear German being spoken. They opened fire on us with their automatic weapons, but since we were sunk in the mud, their shots went over our heads. We kept silent, so as not to reveal our location. At dawn we found ourselves in a flooded forest, sitting close to a tree – the only place that was somewhat dry. We were informed that we could not go on to the bridge, because the Germans had discovered it and had concentrated their fire and forces in that direction, and had caused many casualties among those who had succeeded in crossing it. They told us that our patrolmen knew of a breach through which we could break free of the German siege, and that they intended that we reach the rear periphery of the German line without the enemy noticing.
After a short rest, in the full light of day, we left the forest and entered an area that was entirely flooded with water and covered with very tall weeds. We moved forward, hidden by the tall weeds but leaving trails where we walked through them single file, each one supporting and helping the other. We passed a good part of the way, and the gunshots were fainter. We kept on moving, even at night. Our knapsacks “sprouted” leaves. While walking, I took out a handful of wheat that had already started to blossom, and chewed it, trying to ease my hunger; everyone else was doing the same. There was no lack of water; we simply dipped our hands in the water around us and drank! Every now and then we passed a flat surface constructed of unprocessed tree trunks. It was explained to us that in the summer, the villagers would cut the weeds and spread them on the flat surfaces to dry; in the winter when the water had frozen, they would come on sleds and collect the dried weeds.
After several days and nights of walking, we finally spied land in the distance; it turned out to be an island. We were happy to be on dry land, and built fires to dry out our clothes. Our bodies had swollen due to our being in the water for so long, and we had some ugly sores. The doctor promised us that they would disappear in a few days. After a day or so of rest, we had to cross another field of water, and then we were supposed to reach solid ground. When we arrived, we had reached the rear of the German lines. We found the places where they had parked their vehicles, and in many cases, the spots where they had lit fires; the earth was still hot. And so we moved through the periphery of the German line. Our orders were to leave the forest and head towards the area around Nowogródek, which was responsible for our brigade. After some consulting by our commanders, it was decided to break the unit up into groups of about 30 people, in order to make our movements through an area controlled by the Germans less noticeable.
After we had been divided into small groups, we moved on. Our group was made up of about 20 people, among them Ya’acov Druck and his family, Rochman, Laser Yiziarski, and others. We progressed westward according to the plan, in order to reach the village of Olhovka, near Lida. There the battalion was to regroup, according to the instructions of the brigade’s commander. In order to get there we had a distance of about 150 kilometers to cover, through an area that was under German control. Due to our exhaustion, our progress was slow. In the afternoon we stopped to eat and rest, when suddenly someone opened fire on us with rifles and machine guns. We responded quickly, as we had been trained, and hid in a nearby thicket. After some time, we needed to clear a path inside the thicket. It was completely dark, as if it were night in the middle of the day. We continued in the water, while around us were trees and bushes. The water came up to our chests. We went on that way until the next morning, until we heard the crow of a rooster. We headed towards him, clearing our path with great effort until we reached a clearing in the forest. A few houses were scattered here and there. Some partisans came towards us and told us about the place we had reached. As it turned out, our “shortcut” through the water had saved us two days of walking. We were exhausted, and we tarried in that place for two days. We later learned that the Germans had not been shooting at us. The group that had been traveling about a kilometer or two in front of us had decided to get food from a certain village, near the town of Lobetshi. The area was under the control of the Germans. A few people from the group went into the village, slaughtered a sheep and returned with some necessities to the place where they had left the group resting. The farmer from whom they had taken the sheep complained to the Germans; since they hadn’t been cautious enough, the Germans were able to follow them. The group had been resting, and some were bathing in the river that flowed there. We were told that my cousin Mordechai Basist’s wife was forced to run naked, holding her clothes in her hands. Fortunately for them, the Germans were afraid to engage in an open battle, and they escaped unscathed.
I have many other memories of that difficult, suffering-filled journey; some of them of incidents that were very hard. One of the groups, which was made up of young men from Lida, were given orders to include in their group the members of the Belcher family, one of whom was a woman with a child whose husband had been sent by the company’s commander to Lida. They refused, saying they wanted to move quickly and a woman and child would slow them down. An argument ensued, during the course of which a seventeen year old youth named Avraham Kaplan shouted, “Whoever sent your husband to Lida to bring people and money should be the one to worry about you.” The woman, crying, turned to the commander, and Zusya, one of Tuvia’s brothers, became angry with the young man and shot him with the submachine gun he held in his hand. The incident was very upsetting; even today I can’t forget it. After that incident, the youth’s brother and his wife returned to Lida, and when the ghetto was destroyed they were sent to their deaths in Majdanek.
Our morale was terribly low. We made our way west with great difficulty. From the Russian partisans we heard many more anti-Semitic terms. Some of them had served with the Germans, and then decided they’d be better off with the partisans because of the situation at the front. They brought with them the things they had learned from the Nazis. Our situation became chaotic; in many instances, our supposed “friends” stole from and killed Jewish fighters for their weapons. In that manner a man of Lida, a highly praised partisan, Velvel Kropsky, and his friend Golombovsky were murdered.
The Long Journey
On our long and arduous journey to the new gathering spot, disasters happened. When it came time to cross the raging Biarozka River, there was not enough room in the boat for our whole group. When we learned that the Germans were approaching, Yitzhak Greenfeld, a son of Lida, volunteered to swim across. He put his clothing and rifle into the boat in his sister’s care, and then jumped into the river. He sank beneath the water and did not reappear.
As I’ve said, the journey was very long, exhausting, and full of danger. But in addition to that, there was also the problem of supplies; we were extremely hungry. At a certain point, I suggested to my friend Lazer Yiziarski that we separate from the group and go on alone. We knew the location of the designated meeting spot, and by doing so it would be easier to supply ourselves with food. One day, we happened upon an isolated house next to the Biarozka River. We entered and greeted the occupants, a few women peeling potatoes and a boy of about fifteen. We asked if we could have something to eat, and one of the women told us that the food would be ready soon. After awhile I noticed that the boy was gone. I said to my friend, “Listen, something strange is going on here. Where’s the boy? Let’s skip the food and get out of here.” We left the house and suddenly we were surrounded by partisans from an unfamiliar brigade. They ordered us to hand over our weapons. Since we were outnumbered, we did so. The commander asked us, “So, you’ve come to rob that house?” I replied, “We only asked for food.” He questioned the women, and they corroborated my statement that we had only asked for food. Our situation at that moment was very unstable; it was extremely dangerous to be a Jewish partisan without the support of a unit, and anti-Semitism was rampant. I heard one of them say to the commander, “Come, let’s tie rocks around their necks and throw them in the river.” I knew he did not mean it as a joke. I kept my cool and told them, “You can do with us whatever you wish, but you should know that our commissar, Shemyatoviec, is not far from here with a large group and he knows we’ve come here to ask for food. If we don’t return, he will come looking for us, and your fate will not be a good one!” They looked at one another, and then gave us back our rifles after removing the ammunition. We left, fearing all the while that they would shoot us in the back.
After about a week, exhausted and famished, we reached an area that was familiar to us. At night it was extremely cold. We reached an inhabited area, where the houses stood apart from one another by a distance of about a kilometer. We observed the place until we were convinced there were no Germans present, and approached the first house. We entered and asked for food. On the table were placed a large pot of potatoes and a jug of sour cream. We devoured every bit that was served to us, said thank you and goodbye and continued on our way. About fifteen minutes later, we entered the next house and asked for food. We were served the same potatoes and sour cream. Today I recognize that we were literally starving, because we stopped at every single house and ate the same meal over and over, as if our insides were completely empty. Finally, just as evening was falling, we approached the last house, which looked wretched indeed. We greeted the owner, a poor man, and he put on the wooden table a pitcher of sour milk and some cooked potatoes. With some difficulty, we stuffed in every bit of food, thanked the owner, and staggered out of the house. We went deep into a dense thicket, where we built a small fire and lay down close to it. We talked for awhile, and then fell asleep.
In the morning, we traversed the thicket and realized that we were close to the Niemen River. We continued on our way, and after a few hours we approached another village. It was a lovely summer’s day, August was dressed in all its splendor, all was still, and the river flowed by at a leisurely pace. The village looked familiar to me; it turned out we had arrived at the isolated village of Izboysk. A brief observation revealed nothing untoward, and we decided to go into the village. We entered the first house and asked for food. After the meal, we asked for tobacco. In those days, we would smoke anything, and if there was no tobacco we would even smoke cherry leaves. The goy also provided me with a short shepherd’s coat with wooden buttons. We continued on deeper into the village, and drew near a stream that cut the village into two. From afar we saw a place where people were gathering. As we approached the place, a man broke away from the crowd and headed in our direction. He crossed the small bridge that went over the stream and as he passed us he said, without stopping or turning his head, “Where are you going? There are Germans there!” Without thinking, we instinctively turned left between two houses and began running through a field of cabbage. The sky suddenly darkened and it began to pour; we went on, and crossed into a field of grain filled with stacks of sheaves. We crawled inside one of them, hugging each other in an attempt to stay warm, and waited for the rain to stop. Eventually the rain stopped and we climbed out and continued on our way. We came to a certain place and saw an unusual sight; on the banks of the Niemen River stood a group of villagers building a house…while all around them was war and destruction.
Entire villages and towns were destroyed, the populace transported to Germany or killed, and here were people peacefully building a new house. It was very cold, and they built a bonfire and invited us to join them. They warmed food, and we sat down next to the fire and, while talking with them, we ate and dried ourselves out. After a while, we continued on our way. We felt good, dry and satiated. We approached a settled area that looked familiar; it was the village of Morin. We stood opposite the village; all of the fields around it were flooded. We stood there and cried from anger and frustration; here we were, finally dry and well-fed, and we had to get wet again in order to reach the village. We did it, with tears and broken hearts.
The village was one long street with two rows of houses, running along the bank of the Niemen. We went on with caution; because of the proximity of the village to the town of Ivye, Germans could often be found there. We stood next to one of the houses, talking to the owner; while we were asking if we could come in and, of course, have something to eat, two carts approached us, filled with armed men. A few of them jumped out of the cart and approached us with their submachine-guns pointed at us, and shouted, “Hands up!” As they took our weapons away from us, I could tell they were drunk. I quietly told my friend Lazerke to move towards the corner of the house and, when I gave him a small push, to start running to the back of the house. The owner of the house had already run away by this time. I saw some of the men still in the wagons raise their weapons, but luckily their friends came between them and us. I waited until they started to move, then I gave Lazer a push and we ran to the back of the house. The started shooting at us with bursts of gunfire, but the walls of the house protected us, and they were too drunk to give us chase. That is what saved us.
After awhile we were compelled to return to the village. We entered from the other side and encountered a partisan from our division, from the Iskara regiment, who was the supervisor of the village (in villages which were controlled by the partisans, this was the person responsible for their needs), and we complained to him about what had happened. His answer was, “Give thanks that you’re still alive; those scoundrels kill everyone. They’ve left the partisan movement; when they come here, even I go into hiding.” (Not long afterwards an order came down and the entire rogue group of about 30 people was executed).
The commandant (person in charge of the village) advised us to go to the other side of the river (the Niemen River), and ordered one of the villagers to take us across. “You’ll be healthier on the other side,” he told us. We asked the farmer to give us some bread and a cup. While he took us across, we tore into the bread with our hands while it was still hot. It stuck in our throats and we were only able to swallow it with the help of the water that we scooped up from the river in the cup. (I can remember the flavor of that bread even today).
When we got to the other side, the farmer told us that the village of Kribitchi wasn’t far away; then he left us and went back to the other side. It was foggy, and we couldn’t see even a few meters in front of us. We started searching for a place to sleep, when – for a wonder – we saw a huge, hollowed-out oak tree, apparently the victim of a lightening strike. We crawled inside and lay down, hugging one another for warmth, on the ground. In the morning we awoke to the cries of roosters and the lowing of cattle. We decided to enter the village of Kribitchi, and on our way we encountered a villager carrying a bridle. Apparently he had gone to return his horse to the pasture. We greeted him and he warned us not to enter the village. He told us that the day before one of our groups had encountered the company of a man named Ziloni, who beat them and, after a struggle, took their weapons; several people in the group had been wounded. We decided not to enter the village, and instead kept walking along the bank of the Niemen, which took us out of our way but seemed to me to be safer.
That same morning, we reached an isolated house with a fire burning in the oven and the smell of food in the air, but the lady of the house told us she had no food to give us. In the kitchen, the table was covered with a cloth, not a normal thing in a villager’s home. I started to feel the tablecloth, and noticed that there were hot things underneath; it turned out they were wheat pancakes that had just been baked, apparently for the family’s breakfast. With no choice, the woman allowed us to share in the meal. After the meal, we thanked the home owner. We felt wonderful now that our stomachs were full. We continued on our way, and after a day we met up with the rest of our company in a village called Olkhovka, about 30 kilometers from the city of my birth, Lida, on the banks of the Niemen.
As I’ve said, this was a difficult time to be a partisan. The Germans withdrew formations from the front in order to completely destroy the partisan movement. They were unsuccessful. In light of the difficulties that the partisans faced, some of our partisan friends blamed the Jews for the situation. Thus began a period where we were not only fighting against the Germans, we were fighting against Poles who had formed into their own partisan units in order to help the Germans in their war against the Soviet partisans and who used the opportunity to kill as many Jews as possible. In addition, we had to be watchful of our Russian friends.
After a short time our battalion gathered together. Once again we were in familiar places, in the area where we used to stay during summer vacations before the war. During the Soviet rule, we would arrive in a place called Hota-Niemen for the weekend on a special train from Lida. There was a beautiful beach for bathing there, and we would bathe in the Niemen, and on the last evening of our stay in the bosom of nature we would return home to Lida, about 30 kilometers away. Now, here we were in the same place, under very different conditions and after many awful experiences.
We were forced to change the location of our bases every few days because there were informants who cooperated with the Germans. Once again we found ourselves near the village of Zorbialnik, not far from Yasinovka where we had suffered heavy casualties; we passed by the graves of our brothers who fell in that horrible battle. We were shocked to see that animals had been digging in the grave, and the bones of our friends were scattered about. We ordered the villagers to bury the bones and build a fence around the grave. After some time, when I chanced to pass that way again, I found the grave surrounded by a fence and a sign which stated that here were buried partisans who fell in battle.
Things began heating up at the front, and the Germans were forced to recall their forces from the area and send them to the front to meet the Russian offensive. We also received orders to strengthen our activity, and the partisan headquarters in Moscow sent out new commanders in a reorganization effort. We also received a new commandant, named Shemyatoviec, and our unit was completely reorganized. It was split into two groups on the orders of the chief of staff of General Platon (Chernyshev). At the same time, a situation was created wherein many officers who had been taken captive, and some of whom had cooperated with the Germans, asked to rejoin the group. Over the strong objections of our commander Tuvia Bielski, a group of about 200 fighters with the best weapons, many of them automatic, was added to our unit. Tuvia’s brother Zusya was ordered by several officers to go and present himself to the head of the reconnaissance group, who had only recently been in the service of the Germans. In that manner, the completely Jewish unit Ordzonikidze was established.
Return to Naliboki
We received orders from the main headquarters to return to the Naliboki Forest. It would be a long journey that most of us would make on foot, while the unit’s equipment was carried in wagons harnessed to horses. Of course, the patrolmen were on horseback. Along the way, we were joined by a group of Jewish partisans, young men from the town of Jzlodok, not far from Lida. They came from the Lipiczany Forest, where they had been with Dr. Atlas’s unit (Dr. Atlas was a pediatrician before the war, but with the start of the German occupation, he said “From here and now, I am a fighter, not a doctor.” He was killed in one of the battles). In light of the fierce anti-Semitism that had spread within the partisans, the decision of that group to join us created a serious problem, because the commander of their unit was very much against it. Bielski, after a long debate, was successful in passing the command which allowed the group of about 30 people to remain with us. This was a double victory, because it increased the number of fighters in our unit, which had been depleted when some of the best fighters had left, and the group avoided having to return to the unit from which the anti-Semitism had spread and in which their lives were in danger.
The battalion headquarters ordered that an advance party of about 200 people would be sent ahead to prepare a winter camp. The advance party would be responsible for building earthen huts (zemlyankot) in a certain place, and to collect necessary food items for the battalion, which would arrive later, after the base had been established. The man who was charged with this mission was a young fellow from the town of Karelichy named Kessler, about 35 years old, tall and athletic, who knew the area well. He had an authoritative manner, was level-headed and extremely brave. The times were very hard, and the weather had started to show signs of winter. In the mornings, we could see that the puddles on the ground had frozen during the night.
As I said, we started our journey to Naliboki with the wagons. We had axes, saws and tools for digging. In addition to seeing to our own needs, we needed to care for the horses. In the evenings, we would hobble their front legs, allowing them limited movement in the pasture. One morning, I couldn’t find my horse. It turned out he had managed to wander quite a distance in spite of the hobble. After that night, I would tie him with a long rope attached to my own legs, and thus during the night I would wander with my horse in my sleep, waking up in the morning some distance from the group.
At this time the Ordzonikidze was based in the area near Nowogródek, in the battalion of my cousin David Boyerski. The unit began operations against the Germans and the Poles who cooperated with them in an effort to free their country from communists and Jews.
After many days, we arrived in the place where we were supposed to set up camp. Some of us were given the task of digging. The ground was starting to freeze, and we were forced to light large bonfires in the places where the zemlyankot were to be built. Others were responsible for cutting down trees and bringing them from some distance away, without destroying the camouflage needed to hide the base. Another group was supposed to spread out in the area of the town of Naliboki, which had been destroyed by the Germans during their last operation against us. Their task was to collect any potatoes still in the earth, which the inhabitants had not been able to gather, along with any other vegetables to be found in the gardens. All the food that was collected was stored in a cellar dug into the earth that was well-ventilated to prevent rotting.
While our group was working to prepare the winter base in Naliboki, the final stage of the eradication of the Jews of Lida was taking place. In the middle of September, my cousin David Boyerski and a few other partisans were given permission to go to Lida and bring out another group, among them David’s sister Mina and her life-long friend, Moshe Markovitch. It was extremely difficult to persuade the Jews to leave Lida, because they had been enjoying a period of relative quiet. In addition, there were people who had left but, unable to tolerate the difficult conditions in the forest, returned to the Lida ghetto. Their stories dissuaded many other people from attempting such a difficult and dangerous life.
According to David’s account, his sister Mina finally agreed to leave the ghetto; her friend Markovitch had long been willing to go. He had supplied himself with a pistol, but then a mishap occurred. One day while Markovitch was teaching Mina how to shoot the gun, a bullet was discharged and wounded him in the hand. In spite of everything they decided to leave the city, although at the time things were quiet and the Jews of Lida were relatively comfortable.
The Destruction of the Lida Ghetto
At this time, the Germans had already sentenced the inhabitants of the Lida ghetto to death. On the morning of 17 September 1943 the inhabitants awoke to find themselves surrounded by German forces and a contingent of local police working in cooperation with the Germans. People began to run towards the Judenrat, to see if they could discover what was going on. Also in the house at number 15 Kholodna, where we had lived before we left for the forest, everyone awoke, including David’s uncle Moshe Movshovitz (the “straznick”), who burst into David’s room and shouted at him, “Because of you, we’re all going to die! What if your weapon is discovered? And you don’t have any documents!” “You just worry about yourself; I’ll manage” answered David. This was at dawn; while people got up and hurried to dress, an announcement came from the Judenrat that the Jews of Lida were about to be transported to a work camp near Lublin. They were told to bring daily necessities and food for the journey. Meanwhile, the Germans had brought trucks for the removal of the population of the ghetto. People refused to get into the trucks because they feared they would be killed when they reached their destination. Altman, who had managed the handwerkstaten, at that time appealed to Henvag, the commandant of the area, “You promised that if we worked faithfully, nothing would happen to us.” Henvag raised his hand and said, “Nichs tzomchen” (or, there is nothing to be done). In the end, they allowed the inhabitants of the ghetto to walk to the train. And thus, under watch of only a few guards, the Jews of Lida began their last journey, moving in groups through the city towards the train station, ever closer to their deaths.
As they walked, David, his sister Mina and Moshe agreed that at the first opportunity he would break away from the group and run away down the first lane they came to. David told them that, if all was quiet and they didn’t hear any shooting, they should do the same at the second lane they approached. He promised to meet them next to the house of a certain Christian they knew and from there take them to the forest to the Bielski unit.
David waited for them for two days, but when they did not arrive, he continued on his way. As he did, he encountered a childhood friend, who had run away from the train; he took him along to the unit. From that same train, it turned out that some sixty men and women succeeded in escaping, among them Sunny Krechmer, the wife of the lawyer Mark Krechmer. She jumped from the train as it approached the extermination camp and disguised herself as a Polish woman. In May of 1945, after the war, I met her in Satu Mare in Transylvania. From those who escaped, David learned that his sister had refused to run away, despite the efforts of her lifelong friend Moshe to persuade her. She said she was no better than her parents and she refused to try to escape; and so the two went off to their deaths. The train carried the remnants of the Jews of Lida and the surrounding area, some 4,000 men, women and children, to Sobibor and Majdanek. We did not learn of this until the entire battalion arrived.
We worked very hard then, and necessities were handed out personally by our commander, Kessler. At night, by the bonfire, he would tell us all about his life before the war. He told us how he had been a horse thief and about his family, which had been destroyed. He told us that he now believed that our most important mission was to save as many Jews as possible. The man was completely honest with us; he was satisfied with the portion of food he received just like the rest of us, and talked to us as a father would to his children. He was a good soul.
In my role as a carter, I would make my way back and forth, from morning until evening, transporting sacks of potatoes from the field to the storage shed. Each trip was about 10 – 15 kilometers. It was terribly cold, and I didn’t even have any gloves to warm my hands, which ached from constant exposure to the rain, the moist snow, the cold and the wind. There wasn’t much to be done. From time to time I would tuck my hands into my armpits to alleviate the pain. One day, we discovered pimples between the fingers that itched horribly. The doctor determined that we had caught scabies from the horses. The most effective medicine for the disease was a mixture of sulfur and grease, but sulfur was not available to us. The doctor advised us to use the pitch from pine tree roots which was used to make turpentine. We rubbed ourselves all over, even up to our ears, and dried ourselves off by the fire. After a day or two the itching stopped, and within a week scabs had formed over the sores. Then we had a problem trying to remove the pitch; we all looked like natives of the country Cush. We heated water in buckets and poured it into a tub, sat down naked inside and scrubbed our skin with a brush until we bled. This was the end of October; at night the puddles would freeze and the temperature was about 4 degrees. We were able to handle the conditions, our bodies were impervious; we suffered no ill effects and we emerged from our tubs pale and clean. Later on it got even colder and at night, snow started to fall.
On one such day, my mother – who was responsible for the camp’s kitchen – failed to arrive to prepare the meal for the unit. The commander of the camp went looking for her, since even those of us around the fire were covered in snow and it was hard to find us. The commander, using the butt of his rifle, found her completely covered in the snow which had fallen the night before.
“Little Moscow” – The Partisan Camp
Autumn, 1943. From day to day the weather got colder; as was told we slept outdoors next to fires, or sat by them, roasting potatoes or red beets while each person told his life’s story. The beets were especially tasty, because it had been a long time since we had eaten anything sweet. While listening to the stories we bundled up inside of furs, with our feet extended towards the fire, and thus we would fall asleep. The next morning, another day of hard work awaited us. One morning I woke up under a deep cover of snow. At first I didn’t understand what had happened, but after a few moments I realized my head was covered by the snow.
Eventually we completed the mission which had been given us: not far from the place where we camped we had built a sort of city, with houses under the ground, a main street and a number of side streets, and a bathhouse with a steam machine that disinfected our clothes while we bathed. There was also a bakery, a mill where a horse-drawn wheel ground flour, and a tannery where leather was prepared. Later on, when the entire unit was reunited, there would also be a blacksmith, a forge, a shoe manufactory, and a carpenter’s shop. Not far away a hospital was built underground; there were times when there were as many as 130 sick or injured patients cared for there. The care was so good, that I don’t remember a single person ever dying there.
After most of the rest of the unit had
joined us at the new base, the four of us and another sixteen people
made our home in one of the zemlyankot (the Russian word for a hut built
underground, from the word zemlya, or “earth”). The zemlyankah was built
under the earth with tree trunks 20 centimeters in diameter. The
ceiling, which stuck out above the ground by about a meter, was built of
wooden rafters covered with earth and foliage to camouflage it. The wood
was unprocessed, and was strengthened by cuts at the ends of the wood
where the rafters were tied together.
Life on the base settled into a routine once the unit was divided into companies. The demolition company was under the command of Leibush Fredman, a man from Lida who was an electrician by trade. In order to obtain explosive materials, I, along with several others, would dismantle old munitions shells. From some of them it was possible to detach the detonators and put them into boiling water; the material would melt and we would pour it into a container suitable for preparing a charge. With a different type of shell, the work was more difficult: we were forced to remove the front piece with a hammer and chisel, and then break up the explosive material with a hammer. In the winter, we worked shoeing the horses, a type of labor I learned from two Jewish blacksmiths who had worked in that occupation before the war.
Next to the smithy, my father set up a workshop where he made replacement parts for the weapons. In particular, we needed bipods to support the machine guns that had been taken out of damaged Russian tanks. One of the companies was assigned the task of performing reconnaissance, and they were equipped with horses for that purpose. What a fine show it was, to see a city-born Jew riding a horse as if born to the saddle, with no sign of inferiority or fear. I remember that one of the patrolmen somehow managed to find a sword of the kind used by the Red Army cavalry, and he used to ride on his horse with the sword strapped at his side.
Another company was assigned guard duty for the base, day and night. The area covered by the guards was three kilometers in diameter, and the guards were changed every few hours. The guard posts were manned by small squads. One time, as I drove a cart filled with potatoes, every hundred or so meters I had to leave the path to go around fallen trees which we had placed there for the purpose of making access to the base difficult should the Germans come. It was a sort of barrier that would give us time to prepare. Darkness fell, and I couldn’t continue. I removed the harness and tied the horse to the wagon. Since it was raining, I lay down under the wagon so as not to get wet. After awhile, a horseman approached; it was a young man who had been sent to see what had happened to me. He told me my orders were to leave the wagon and return to the base with the horse. I realized that I was only a few hundred meters away from the most forward lying guard post. I rode on until I reached it, and there I found that the watch captain was Hershel Gotlevski, from the town of Lipnishuk, whom I knew from before the war when we would visit my family there. He told me that soon the watch would change, and then we could go back to the base together. (Hershel Gotlevski was later badly injured in the last battle, the one where we joined forces with the Red Army, and died in the hospital at Nowogródek). We set out for the base; it was dark and the path was muddy. I saw that from time to time Gotlevski would use a lighter made of the casing of a mortar shell to light the way. It didn’t help, though, and we discovered that we were traveling in a circle. I told Hershel to hang on to the horse’s tail and I would give the animal his head, trusting him to find the way back; luckily, it worked.
Yet another company was responsible for obtaining food, medicine, and other essentials for our daily life. This was a very difficult task. Every division and battalion was responsible for a defined area far from its base, usually located near German bases. At first, it was sufficient to allocate a single platoon for such an action. But things grew more difficult when the villagers began collaborating with the Germans. When the platoon would enter the village, a few residents would run to inform the Germans of their presence. It became necessary to enter the villages under the cover of weapons fire, which ended up in losses without achieving the objective of the mission.
The Sector’s Three Circles
There were three types of places in our area. In the first type, we were forbidden from taking anything, but we could ask for a place to sleep and a meal. Those were the kinds of places where most of the populace were supporters of the partisans, and some of them even joined our ranks. I remember one funny incident involving a young Jewish man named Avramele, whose nickname was “pul-zyduck” (half-Jew), because of the small stature he shared with the rest of his family. One day, Avramele entered a house in a certain village and saw a woman nursing a baby. Avramele asked her for some milk and in response the woman the woman squirted milk on him from her ample breast and said, “Here, have some milk.” Later on he realized he had entered the home of the partisan commander. For a long time afterwards, we would laugh at him about the milk he received.
In the second type of place, we were allowed to demand food and clothing from the head of the village, the argument being that we were representatives of the Soviet government, and the villagers were required to give us those items as a sort of tax, in lieu of money.
In the third kind of place, the villagers cooperated with the Germans, and we were allowed to take whatever we needed. Of course the villagers objected to this, and they would summon the Germans. They also organized their own people in the service of the Germans, and provided them with weapons. We were forced to go out on supply missions with units the size of a company or larger. We would quietly surround the villages, a platoon would enter and begin gathering the items that it had been planned we would take such as animals, flour, pigs, clothes and other necessities. In most cases, the villagers would send women out to summon the Germans. In many cases, if a man was caught running to get the Germans, he was immediately killed, so women were sent. Their punishment was lighter: they were beaten on their backsides with the steel rods used in Russia to clean rifles. After about 30 strokes with the rod, the woman would have to lie down for months and would be unable to work. Any men who were caught were, by a command from on high, shot to death without mercy for collaborating with the enemy. Supply missions were the hardest of all, because we had to venture far from our base through areas controlled by the Germans.
A City Inside the Forest
Another company was the headquarters, with Tuvia Bielski its leader, along with his brother Asael, Melvin the chief of staff, and the commissar Shemyatoviec (the commissar was an officer with the rank of major who was sent from Russia by way of the front to manage the political side of the unit). They managed the entire arrangement in a very effective manner. We were like a city inside the forest, if my memory serves about 40 houses in an area 300 by 1,000 meters. At the entrance was the formation grounds; in the first row of houses was the headquarters, storage sheds were further down the street, at the sides were alleys with more houses, and at the end the bread bakery and the mill which was operated by Mordechai Gershovitz (who went by the nickname of Der Amerikaner Feter – the American Uncle). Farther away was the bath house and the transportation base, and a short distance away were located the workshops where everything from clothing to weapons parts were produced.
Another company was the service company, whose mission was to supply all the needs of the unit; for example, based on experience it was decided to equip everyone with battle rations and so a factory to make cold cuts was established. The plan was that everyone would be provided with enough toast and cold cuts to last for several days in siege conditions. A unit was sent to one of the towns under German control to obtain a meat grinder because the blades broke and it was difficult to get replacements anywhere else.
One day, the commissar put his hand on my father’s shoulder and said, “Son,” - in spite of the fact that my father was the same age as he - “we need to create blades for the meat grinder.” When my father asked what he should use to make them, Shemyatoviec replied, “I have faith in you.” This was a truly difficult task, but after much thinking and work, my father managed to create blades from the coils of an automobile. And so it was possible to keep making the cold cuts; the toast was made from bread dried in the bakery’s oven.
Thus everyone was supplied with a pack containing toast and cold cuts for those difficult hours that were sure to come. A tannery and shoemaking workshop were also established, and people began to be supplied with a sort of leather shoe adapted from the type worn in those days by the villagers, which were called “lapchi”; later they were able to produce proper shoes. A carpentry workshop was also established, where Pitluk and Ya’acov Paltovski built parts for rifles; in the tailors’ workshop they would prepare clothing from fabric from parachutes that had been used to deliver supplies and ammunition. Oppenheimer, my father and several others worked in the workshop for repairing weapons. There were also two kitchens, a large one for the general partisan populace, and a smaller one for the senior staff of the headquarters – my mother was in charge of this kitchen. We, of course, ate food prepared in the commanders’ kitchen.
It was winter, bitter cold, and things were relatively quiet with each of us busy with his tasks, and the Germans busy fighting on several fronts. It was a period of abatement for us. Occasionally, German planes would drop bombs, but they didn’t cause much damage and we just kept on with what we were doing. Occasionally we would leave to bring supplies from distant areas; next to the bases where the Germans had made strongholds (they were afraid of the partisans). It was very dangerous work. We would also go out to perform sabotage missions that were assigned to us by the brigade’s headquarters. One of the companies was responsible for security at the air field in our area. According to the order of General Pelton (Chernyshev), trees were uprooted and a field was prepared for landing airplanes, (mainly those of the type Dakota). At night Dakota airplanes would land, delivering supplies of weapons, ammunition and medicine. They would go on their way, carrying with them people who were severely injured or very ill. Sometimes two planes would land. There were times when German airplanes would pursue the planes, and they would then return to the air field and it would get bombed. All during this period, we had no contact with the outside world; occasionally we would meet up with Jews from other units, but mostly we had the feeling that we were the only Jews to survive. Jews made up about 10% of all the partisans.
Not far from us was the camp of a unit of Jews from Minsk, along with their commander who was named Zorin, a tall, athletic and very authoritative man. Zorin had left a senior position in a combat unit in the area around Minsk (the capital of Byelorussia), and took upon himself the responsibility for saving as many Jews as possible from Minsk and the surrounding area. Like those who could not find a place in the other partisan units, they had no weapons, and most of them were women and children. His mission was to protect them and provide them with the minimum of their needs for basic survival. Our unit often helped them with food and medical care for the sick and injured. Zorin’s unit was equipped with only a few weapons and their situation was very difficult.
The Russian partisans nicknamed our camp
base “Malen'kiĭ Moscow” (Little Moscow). You could find everything
there. The Russian units utilized our medical staff; injured men
recuperated in our camp and received devoted care during their recovery.
Here, all sorts of weapons were repaired, clothing was made, and more.
They found in our camp everything required by a man fighting a war, and
in spite of all that the anti-Semitism continued to pervade everything.
They constantly reminded us that the Jews gave away all of their money
and property to the Germans and went like sheep to the slaughter.
And so “Bialovroda” came to join us; he worked as a barber in the unit. Prior to that, a barber would come once a week to trim hair and shave the men of the divisional headquarters and General Pelton (“Chernyshev”). One time the regular barber didn’t arrive and Bialovroda was sent in his place, and from that time General Pelton, and later his replacement Dvov, would not agree that anyone else should cut his hair
We had several secrets in our unit which we had not revealed to our commander, such as: sending units to rescue isolated Jews in far away places, or that some of the Jewish partisans were religious - they prayed and observed the Sabbath and holidays as much as they could - that we had in our unit a ritual slaughterer, and other things. Suddenly we were informed that all of those things were known to the commander and that the decision had been made to get rid of that troublesome Bialovroda; he was executed and those of us from Lida were not sorry.
Another sad incident that occurred involved the development at some point of tension between Bielski and Kessler. According to the rumors, the tension was caused by a dispute over duties. Kessler was arrested and placed in detention not far from our zemlyankah (house built under ground). We heard that he was there awaiting trial, and that his wife had also been arrested and was detained with him.
One evening I heard an order given to a guard to take Kessler and his wife out of their jail. I heard voices raised in argument, and I also heard Asael Bielski accuse Kessler in a raging fury. Kessler answered in a quiet voice, and I couldn’t hear exactly what he said. Then I heard Asael Bielski shouting once again, the sound of Kessler’s wife crying, and gunshots. I didn’t know what to do, such was my sorrow. I felt as though I had dreamed a bad dream, and it took several months before I could put that horrible experience behind me.
We went on with our lives, and when I looked around I would see people I had known before the war, urbanites one and all, as if they were completely different people, people of the wide-open spaces, people who in a relatively short amount of time had adapted to a life in the outdoors. These were people who had never seen a horse before, and suddenly they had become skilled horsemen, intransigent soldiers, and excellent guides who knew how to find the correct solutions to difficult situations.
Recently the surrounding units had been taken over with anti-Semitism and we heard all kinds of stories about Jews. Aside from the stories about Jews not wanting to fight, and Jews working on behalf of the Germans, we heard lies about how the Germans had opened a sort of school in Minsk where they trained Jewish women in espionage; they would infect them with syphilis and send them out to infect partisans with the disease. There were incidents where Jewish women who had run away from Minsk and other places were raped by Russian partisans and then killed.
There was also an incident involving about 300 Jews, who were held in a work camp called Koldichevo near the city of Baranavicy. The camp was tightly sealed and carefully guarded. The Jews who were held there had been professionals and all of them were men whose families had been murdered. They decided to run away by means of a tunnel they had dug. They had dumped the earth they displaced between doubled walls which they had built for that purpose. All of this work was done quietly, in the middle of the night. On the night they were to run away, they decided they had to kill one of the Jews whom they suspected was cooperating with the Germans and who would surely give them away.
They left the tunnel and headed towards the town of Mir (known for its famous yeshiva, the town whose residents were all Jews, and where today only a few buildings remain – one of them is the famous yeshiva), with the intention of joining the partisans in fighting against the Germans, and to avenge the blood of their dear ones. When the Germans learned of the escape the next morning, they immediately pursued them. The Jews had used the main road to the town of Mir as the path of their escape; they knew no other route. The Germans, following their trail in automobiles, soon caught up with the Jews and killed about half of them. The rest fled into the fields and forests nearby.
The Jews encountered some Soviet partisan units and saw them as a source of their salvation, but the Russians slaughtered some of them without mercy. One who was especially famous for his hatred of the people of Israel was the commissar of one partisan unit; the day finally came when the Jewish partisans settled their account with him. Basically, we had no response to that kind of hatred. In spite of everything, some of the escapees reached our unit. In conversations with our commissar, Shemyatoviec, he would tell us, “There’s nothing to be done; sometimes it’s like that.”
And so from time to time Jews would arrive from various hiding places; if it was discovered that there were refugee families in hiding, even if it were far from our location, Tuvia would send out a group to bring them to join us. Often those missions involved much effort and grave danger. There were even times when it was necessary to send an entire platoon in order to save one family. Tuvia would say in a low voice, “I would rather save a single Jew than kill ten Germans.” That was our leader, Tuvia.
One day, our relative Moshe Kaplan and his wife Chaya arrived in our camp. We were delighted to see them. They told us all that had happened to them since they had fled Lida and after they had joined a group of about 20 people organized by Chaya’s brother. Most of them did not have weapons. They had left their small son Avramele with a villager with whom they were acquainted, and asked him to look after the boy. They themselves found shelter in an area of small, scattered forests. All around, the population was hostile; in spite of their precautions, the locals gave away their positions to the Germans. One day they were surrounded by the Germans and the entire group killed, except for Moshe and Chaya who managed to flee and, through a miracle, reached us after walking hundreds of kilometers through enemy territory.
At that time it was still relatively quiet; the Germans had withdrawn to their positions because at the front their situation had worsened and they could not afford to send large units away to perform actions against us. On our part, we would make nightly incursions, night after night, along the railroad tracks and on bridges, never giving the Germans any rest and doing all we could to prevent supplies from reaching them at the front. I especially remember one night, we went out in wagons to perform a mission which would later be called the “Night of the Rails.” Unit after unit went out to the train tracks of the Lida – Baranavicy line, which was about 200 kilometers in length. That night we set explosions all the length of the track; platoon after platoon, company after company, went out and placed egg-shaped charges about the size of a bar of soap between the rails, lit the fuse and withdrew. That night, the entire line between Lida and Baranavicy was blown up. It took the Germans about two weeks to repair all the damage; and such things were done all throughout the area, which greatly disrupted the arrival of supplies at the front. We could hear the explosions that night from several kilometers away, and we could see the destruction even in the dark of night. It was a spectacular show.
Many Jewish fighters excelled at the sabotage missions; one such person was a Polish refugee nicknamed “Tiger” who had escaped from the Lida ghetto and served in the Isskara Unit. One day, while preparing a bomb, he and his Russian friend were killed when the bomb exploded. Another expert was Baruch Levin.
On one of the many missions he performed, he went out one night with his group to blow up a portion of railroad track that was one of the most closely guarded. In addition to towers armed with machine guns, patrols were carried out on foot between the towers. On both sides of the track the trees had been cut down; it was only possible to approach the track under the cover of darkness. One night, while resting in the thicket near the tracks, Baruch began fiddling with the detonator, and when he lifted off the cover he noticed that the wires were not attached according to the specifications that were affixed to the inside of the device. He realized that as soon as the detonator was attached to the bomb, the device would explode. He immediately told the leader of the group what he had noticed and, after some confusion, it was decided to abort the mission and return to base. As soon as they returned to base, the group leader reported to those in charge that Baruch was responsible for the failure of the mission because he had been afraid. Baruch was called into headquarters. He had been a skilled mechanic, and when he explained in detail to the commander what had happened, the commander checked his story and found that Baruch had acted appropriately. From then on, Baruch was the leader of the sabotage platoon of the battalion.
One night the platoon was given the task of burying a mine under the railroad tracks. Baruch himself was involved in the procedure. They needed to dig under the tracks and hide the earth they removed so that the Germans wouldn’t discover the mine before it could be set off. The remainder of the platoon stood guard on the two sandy sides of the place. The mine was already buried under the tracks, and all that remained to be done was erase any tracks they had made in the sand. Then one of the soldiers thought he heard a rustling sound. He told one of the others that he thought he had heard something and that person told another, and so the word got around to all of the soldiers and they withdrew from the place, leaving Baruch alone. He began digging with his hands in order to remove the mine and to replace the earth that had been disturbed by their activities. He was able to retrieve the mine and retreat into the thicket. That same night he decided that from then on he would only go out on missions with a select group of about 5 fighters of his own choosing. Baruch went on to be responsible for the bombing of 21 trains carrying German troops and equipment; for that he was chosen by the unit to receive the medal Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest honor there was.
Zerach Arlioch was the commander of a sabotage platoon in the Issakar battalion. Zerach had army experience from his service in the Polish army. He had completed school for junior officers and was a soldier of great initiative and bravery. He was responsible for bombing 17 trains; most of his activity was on the Lida – Minsk line. In earlier chapters his involvement in context with Dr. Miasnik’s operations in the ghetto was told.
At about the same time, early December 1943, a general named Stephan Petrovic was parachuted in to organize the units in the Lipinski Forest. He brought in a large team with him, to carry out his orders. They needed partisans for guard duty and supply gathering, so they took two soldiers from every battalion and division. They selected tall, good-looking young men equipped with the very best weapons. So it came to be that my cousin David Boyerski and one other Jew were chosen to serve in the Ordzankidza unit. They were the only Jews in a unit of about 120 men. A short time after his reassignment, David learned that his uncle Menachem, the husband of Yocheved, was in the area. He asked for permission to visit him, and when he did it was the first time they had seen one another in a year and a half, since they had parted in the Lida ghetto. The fate of his aunt Yocheved was still unknown to them.
There were many Jewish heroes in the partisans, but the top commander didn’t want to publicize that fact, partly because of the anti-Semitism that was so widespread in the forest. In spite of that, the names of some of the Jewish soldiers did become well-known, such as Eliyahu Kovenski who was known as a commander and brave fighter. One of the youngest fighters was Benjamin Baran, a solitary Jew in the Lida battalion which was full of anti-Semites. He participated bravely in every one of the battalion’s battles, and was given the nickname “loamy posudu” (“break the dishes” in Russian). He got the nickname after a mission when their battalion attacked a train near the town of Novoyelnia about 50 kilometers from Lida. They stopped the train with a mine, killed the German guards and took control of the train. They discovered that the train was carrying all sorts of supplies to the soldiers at the front for the Christmas holiday. Benjamin was the first to break into a car full of china; he began smashing the dishes while calling out to his friends in Russian to join in and break the dishes. He was stuck with that nickname for the rest of his life; people even forgot his real name. It was even inscribed on his tombstone, along with his real name.
The Germans Retreat
In 1944 we could tell the Germans were weakening; from the announcements we heard on Radio Moscow, we knew that the Germans were in retreat. Also, their activities against us in the field were fewer and most of the time they closed themselves up in their fortified bases and didn’t initiate any actions against us; most of their attacks were carried out in airplanes. In the beginning, there used to be two-tailed planes, which we called “rama” because of their shape; later on they used Stuka planes and dropped bombs. We didn’t suffer much damage from those attacks.
The partisans, for their part, tried to find ways to entice the Germans from their strongholds; here is how it was done: near us was stationed a large battalion named after their commander, Pietke, who was described previously. He would send villagers to tell the Germans that his battalion would be in a certain place on a certain day, almost as if he were challenging them to a duel. When the Germans came, Pietke employed against them all of his battle-ready forces, his excellent knowledge of the area, his top-notch ammunition and his batteries of 47 millimeter cannons, all of which caused the surprised Germans heavy casualties.
Our division dealt with blowing up trains and controlled the area; at the same time, we also fought against Polish partisans who collaborated with the Germans and killed Jews at every possible opportunity. The Poles got their orders from the Polish government in exile in London. At this time, it was decided to wipe out the German unit that was stationed at “Hota Niemen,” a highly fortified location. We did not have the proper equipment to blow up the concrete pillars of the fort, so a plan was put into action to entice them out of their stronghold with cunning and attack them outside of its protective walls. In order to do this, headquarters put to good use the anti-Semitism that was so prevalent at that time amongst the villagers of the area.
It was decided to send a few Jewish soldiers to the village closest to the German bases, a place called Pudin. They were to act as if they were drunk, and wave around bottles filled with water to look like vodka. They were told to abuse the villagers and make all sorts of demands. It was obvious that someone from the village cooperated with the Germans and would leave to tell them about the situation. Headquarters assumed that the Germans would arrive in cars by way of the main road, and not come on foot across the fields; and that is exactly what happened. Most of the machine guns and anti-tank weapons from most of the battalions and about 150 men took part in the ambush. The men took up positions on either side of the road. Two villagers set out in horse-drawn wagons, as if they were heading towards the fields, but they quickly turned toward the fort. After a short time we could sense some sort of hasty activity, and shortly thereafter the Germans left the fort on that fine clear day in a convoy and headed towards the village, certain they were about to go hunting for drunken Jews.
The two villagers in their wagons were sent to the head of the convoy because the Germans wanted to be sure the villagers were not cooperating with the partisans. This was their fatal mistake. The convoy progressed slowly, which enabled us to shoot at them with greater accuracy. The entire battle lasted but a few minutes; the only one of them who managed to return fire was their commander, with one burst of gunfire into the sky. They were all killed. Amongst the bodies of the German soldiers we discovered two Polish policemen; after interrogating them we knew who the snitches and collaborators were, about 15 people from the nearby villages. After a few days they were all killed, along with the two villagers who with such happy haste had rushed off to inform the Germans of the presence of the Jews.
Our base became the central place in the lives of the partisans. We had quality medical help available; five doctors worked in our hospital. Wounded partisans who couldn’t be sent to the rear came to our hospital and received devoted care. Some of the units helped us with intelligence, and we knew most areas of the country very well. We manufactured weapons parts, clothing such as shoes, and more. Every day many partisans came to our base. One day I encountered some tall Jewish young men and wished them well. I asked them where they were from, and they explained that they had come from the Rodenitchka Forest, hunting for weapons and ammunition, because they had very little. I asked if by any chance there was a woman there named Yocheved Resnick. Their answer was affirmative, and I was very happy because we had been unsure as to Yocheved’s fate. On a scrap of newspaper, in a spot where it was possible to write, I used a pencil to write a brief note: “My name is Chaim, the son of Sima your cousin, who has met some of your friends from your unit. Your husband Menachem and your cousin David Boyerski are in the Lipinski Forest.” Later on I learned that Yocheved received my note.
One day a man arrived about whose adventures we had heard from partisans from the town of Mir; his name was Shmuel Rofaiszen but everyone called him Oswald. Several people from Mir lived with us in our zemlyankah, and one day Rofaiszen sat with us and told us his story. Rofaiszen had served under the Germans when he pretended to be volksdeutsche (ethnic German), and succeeded in helping 150 people escape the ghetto for the forest. A member of the Judenrat who was not in on the secret was afraid that such actions would be considered provocation and would lead to the destruction of the ghetto. He went to the German commander and informed him that Oswald was delivering weapons to Jews and sending them into the forest. Shmuel was able to escape and was forced to find a hiding place; he found one in a nunnery where he worked for about a year as a gardener. When the front line drew nearer, the nuns asked him to leave. Eventually he found his way to us and became a partisan.
The front drew nearer and at night we could hear the thunder of the cannons. At about that time, we learned that the division in Lipnishuk where my cousin David and his uncle Menachem were stationed had been attacked and suffered heavy casualties. We were extremely worried. The commander of the division was flown to Moscow to receive orders and get advice. The Germans, who at that time were withdrawing their forces from the front, decided to “cleanse” the forests of Lipnishuk of partisans. They gathered together a large force of soldiers and began to encircle the place. The partisan division at that time consisted of about 12,000 combatants organized into brigades and battalions. The intelligence gathering of the partisans failed to a certain extent, because as it turned out, the Germans had built up a concentration of forces from the east and established fortifications to the west. Large forces from the east pushed the partisans westward towards the fortifications. With no choice, the partisans were forced westward toward the fortifications the Germans had prepared. The scouts who were sent by the partisans to investigate the conditions in the field were the first to learn that to the west stood a fortified line supported by tanks for its entire length. Amongst the partisans there arose a sense of uncertainty and loss of control. The first to recover from this was “Bolk” the commander of one of the brigades; he was the one who took upon himself the responsibility and began commanding all of the units. First were the communists and the young comsommol (Russian youth group), who made up the front line, and on the other side he concentrated all of the anti-tank weaponry from all of the units, ordering them to attack the tanks from both sides in order to disable them. The remaining thousands of combat forces were about 200 meters behind. The teams opened fire on the tanks and, as they had been commanded, the front line of communists began throwing grenades at the fortified positions of the Germans. They were joined by thousands of combatants following the cry “hora hora”. As the battle raged, the Germans faced a psychological difficulty to which the darkness contributed, and a fierce battle ensued. Many combatants were injured; I heard from David himself the story of one Jewish fighter who was badly injured in his legs. In order to save himself from falling into German captivity, he drew out a razor and cut his own throat.
According to David’s story, it was hard to describe the shooting, the explosions and the shouting that went on in the darkness. The first light of morning revealed the surreal picture of the small groups of Germans here and there that had been killed by the partisans, and small groups of partisans who had been killed by the Germans. Before the battle, an order had been given for the survivors to gather at a place about 20 kilometers away. Once they did, they learned that about 10% of the partisan fighters had fallen in the battle, among them many Jews.
Because of the widespread anti-Semitism in the mixed partisan units, many Jewish fighters from many different units came to our unit; this was how Benjamin Baran joined us, along with many others whose names I don’t remember. All were integrated into our unit. Our daily lives were very well-organized; everyone had a job and knew what to do. Everyone adjusted to life in the forest, as if we were living on another planet, but reality was like a slap in the face and quickly changed the routine of our lives.
The approaching front line began to make its presence felt; the activity by the Germans increased daily. Also the supply of ammunition from Moscow increased and, in turn, the number of those wounded. At night, with signs made on the ground and wireless communication, Dakota planes would land on improvised landing strips marked with fires; sometimes they were blown up. We prepared for difficult days ahead, and we knew we were expected to fight some very hard battles; the strength of the Nazi beast had not yet begun to dissipate. The time came when we were under constant heavy shelling, day and night. Around us the trees were ripped to shreds by the shells and bombs; we were protected inside our zemlyankot. Every day there were skirmishes with German forces, and sometimes we would take prisoners. We would make them stand in formation, the way they had done to us, and ask them questions about their professions. Once we discovered that everyone in the group we had captured were laborers, former socialists. We said to them, “Well, we could use people like you, but first you must go and shower in the bath house.”
Suddenly, as one man, they refused to walk to the bath house. They knew very well exactly what sort of shower they had given the Jews, and many of them had taken part in the March of Death, in which so many of our brothers had been murdered. At this time, we didn’t have a place to keep prisoners, so we would take them to a place far away from the base and kill them without mercy. One day we captured some of Vlasov’s people who were wearing German army uniforms. Vlasov was a Russian general who was allied with the Germans. Those people were sent to the main headquarters for interrogation, and after that they were all executed. One day we captured a Belgian officer who had served in one of the Belgian units that fought with the Germans on the Russian front, and another time an officer from a Latvian unit who, according to his story, had been a professor at the university in the city of Riga, and who spoke excellent Russian; we sent all of them to the main headquarters.
One day, on their way back from a mission, one of our units encountered a group of S.S. soldiers. In that skirmish a native of my city, Avraham Modrick was killed, a tall young man of about twenty. Two of the Germans were taken prisoner; they were tall, blond and very strong but still ended up as our captives. We told them, “We’re Jews.” Their reply was, “We’re kaput (finished) but then so are all of the Jews kaput.” We killed them with knives.
The Circle of Life is Closed
In those days, within the forest, we thought that we were the last Jews still alive in occupied Europe. We feared that if we did not survive the years of fighting there would be no one left to tell the story of what had happened to us. This bothered us greatly.
Ever day there were more and more skirmishes with units of German soldiers; as they tried to break through our ranks, they attacked us and the neighboring partisan units. We were always battle-ready. One day one of our scouts returned and reported that the Zorin unit and base (Zorin was a Jew from Minsk, and his unit had a high concentration of Jews from Minsk in it) had been attacked, and the Germans had succeeded in breaking through. We were immediately positioned next to the battalion headquarters, ready to take up positions; my parents stayed in our zemlyankah. The company took up positions along the line at the edge of the forest. Soon a battle began; at its peak the wounded were evacuated. Suddenly, Benjamin Baran, who was next to me, was wounded in his arm; soon the forest was ablaze with phosphor bullets and the explosions of hand grenades. On my other side sat a Byelorussian lad, one of the villagers who had recently been recruited; when he stood, I saw he had been shot in the stomach. We discovered that several Germans had climbed into the trees and were spraying us with gunfire. We were forced to make a temporary retreat, and with the help of a Jew from our unit we took him with us; we had no bandaging, so we ripped up his shirt and tied it around his stomach so he could breathe and carried him to a place were the injured were gathered.
There was chaos all around us, the forest was burning, and all around were scattered the bodies of German Wermacht soldiers, some already bloated from the heat of the fire. It is difficult to describe the scene in words. After the sounds of the battle fell silent, we came to realize the extent of our own losses. A couple dozen of our men were dead and many wounded. Among the dead was a man named Gordon from the town of Varnova, who was killed when the Germans attacked the headquarters building, Juq, a man from the city of Mir who had been our neighbor in the zemlyankah, and Zvi Gotteleivski from the town of Lipnishuk, whom I had known before the war. Many others fell whose names I no longer remember.
Amidst the commotion of battle we noticed the movement of several combat units, who were making their way on foot and in wagons. It turned out they were part of the Red Army. They had broken through the German lines and had been on the move for about two weeks. Even today, I can’t explain how it was that I recognized two of the young men amongst the hundreds of soldiers; we hugged one another and cried. They told me that we were the first Jews they had seen in 500 kilometers. Due to the pace at which they had been moving, they did not have sufficient rations and were extremely hungry. I removed all the contents of my kit bag and gave them the rations we had received before the battle; for the next few days I went hungry until we reached the city of Nowogródek.
A couple of days after we had buried our dead, we received orders to march out of the forest heading for Nowogródek, the birthplace of the great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. We marched the entire way, our equipment and the wounded were borne in carts. We marched, because the order had been given to transport equipment in the carts. Someone who had come to join us from nearby, and who was undisciplined, took a cart. He paid for it with his life. As we marched a Piper airplane often flew over us, and occasionally dropped down rubber bags with instructions inside as to our movements, so that we wouldn’t be taken by surprise by Germans. The weather was awful, rainy and cold and we were wet to the marrow of our bones. In spite of everything, we wanted to move as quickly as possible to Nowogródek and from there to Lida, the city of my birth, in the hopes that we would find someone from our family there.
Upon our arrival in Nowogródek the army organized a military parade, and so we marched down the main street towards the medieval fortress that sat atop a hill. Once there, we enjoyed a military formation in which units from the Red Army and the partisans took part, a military orchestra played, there were speeches and a military chorus sang. Afterwards, we were dispersed; there was a registration and we received certificates with the resume of our experiences in the partisans. We asked if we could go to Lida to search for relatives who might still be alive. We turned in our weapons and began looking for a way to get to Lida; in the end my parents, sister and I got a ride in an army vehicle that was going there. Along the way, the car stopped and I was asked to get out because the vehicle was over-crowded. I had no choice but to leave the car at a cross roads that was a checkpoint; there were two female soldiers and a male soldier of about fifty, all of them Uzbeks. I couldn’t exchange a single word with them; they did not speak any Russian. In the end they were able to give me directions by drawing pictures on the backs of cars that passed through the intersection; for example, a drawing of a camel meant a left turn, a horse meant a right turn. They were very nice to me and gave me food; at night I bundled up as best I could by the side of the road and fell asleep. After awhile I felt something cover me and then I was warm. It turned out the male soldier had put a fur coat over me. In the morning after they had given me a soldier’s breakfast, I thanked them for their kindheartedness and went on my way.
When I had turned in my personal weapon, I kept with me two hand grenades, just in case, since the area in which I was traveling was far from safe and I knew I would have to go through areas filled with White Poles, those murderers of Jews (collaborators with the Germans). I decided to turn towards the city of Bielitz, which was about 30 kilometers from Lida; because of that decision I passed by the scene of a battle between Russian anti-tank cannons and German Leopard tanks. The tanks had taken many direct hits; the gun turrets were lying on the ground and around them were the bodies of the German tank crewmen. Engraved in my mind is the picture of the body of one soldier who, in an attempt to escape, had squeezed partway into a drainage pipe before he died. I stood next to the corpse and thought to myself, in what way were these “big heroes” against defenseless Jewish children and old people?
I entered Bielitz and in one of the houses in the center of town I met a Jewish couple and their child who had just returned to the town a day or so before. The parents and their young child had hidden for a long time in the forest. It turned out that the woman was a relative of my mother’s, and had been born in the town of Ivye; the family name was Maivski. We were delighted to have found each other; we hugged and kissed, and we cried at the thought that we had survived while so many others in our family had died. I spent the night with them and the next morning continued on my way to Lida on foot. I was heading east while all of the army was heading west, so there was no chance of getting a ride. No matter, I was used marching dozens of kilometers with the partisans. I drew closer to places that I recognized from my childhood. A woman approached from the other direction and I recognized her; it was the owner of the house we had stayed in during the summer vacations. She told me that she had met my parents and sister a day or so before. She also told me that the White Poles had murdered her husband, and it became clear that she had suffered many great tragedies. I went on, and I entered the village of Minuyti where I had spent time with my parents, sister, and many other Jews of Lida during that last vacation before the war broke out. I arrived at the house in which we had stayed that last time, and there I met Viara, the owners’ daughter, who was about my age. She gave me something to eat and drink, and while I was there I glanced around and noticed things that had been purchased from Jews in exchange for a bit of food. On one of the tables was spread a cloth used on Shabbat to cover the challah and on top of it rested a pair of Sabbath candlesticks. It pained me to see those things; I had to leave the house in order to keep my feelings quiet. In my grief, I felt that I was closing a circle. next >>
English translation by Samin Translations, Netanya, Israel.