A tale of struggling, toil and tears
By David Rubin
I, David Rubin, born in the year 1918 in the town of Vileyka and resident of Ilya until the Holocaust, report the testimony that:
In 1939, Germany stormed into Poland. Some Jewish youth served in the Polish army and many of them were killed in battles with the Germans, while others became prisoners of war. After days of chaos, on September 17, 1939, the Red Army entered our area and the Jewish prisoners were released and returned to town. After a short time, the Soviets established their authority in the area. They announced that all of the industries and factories should be nationalized. Some of their previous owners were taken with “honors” to prison according to the Soviet rules. Temporarily, the smaller store keepers continued operating and using the Polish zloty, but they were limited to selling only the goods left in the store. They soon changed the monetary system and only Soviet rubles were allowed.
By January of 1940 all the smaller merchants effectively had to end their businesses. The last straw came in the form of high taxes that closed even more stores. Looking elsewhere for work, the Jewish youth found new opportunities within the Soviet system. Many of the town's youth left to go for the big cities where there were better chances for employment, while the rest enrolled and studied diligently in colleges and trade schools. The youth enthusiastically studied Russian and looked for technical professions like car mechanics, tractor mechanics, truck drivers, etc. All the trades people joined cooperative unions run by the government and almost all the managers of these unions were Jews. Many of the Jews also found good jobs as clerks in the higher echelons of government.
Also, many joined the Soviet municipal system and other such institutions. Many of the trading and storage enterprises were run by Jews. The relationship between the Jewish and Christian populations of both Belarussian and Polish descent was regarded as mutually beneficial and agreeable. It seemed that most people had adapted well to the Soviet system and life idled peacefully until the summer of 1941, when Germany initiated a surprise attack against the Soviet Union and its territories. By the beginning of July of 1941, the town was already in the hands of the Germans. Only a small number of the Jewish youth succeeded in leaving the area with the retreating Red Army. Most did not have this opportunity because of the lack of transportation. As a primary reason, the train station was far away and many of the trains had been derailed. Many attempted to leave the town either by foot or by horse and buggy, but these people returned after a few days when they realized that all the roads were blocked. Another reason that stopped many from attempting to flee was that until the last minute, many of the Jews believed in the strength of the Red Army. Consequently, they thought the Red Army's retreat was a tactic to mislead the Nazis and that the Red Army would soon return to defeat the Nazis. These people had been confident in a Soviet victory.
As soon as the Nazis arrived, they showed extreme cruelty toward the Jewish population. The officer of the district was an SS (Schutzstaffel, literally Elite Echelon) man and he ordered the Jews in the month of September of 1941 to move to the ghetto. The Jews were told that the Judenrat would now be the liaison for the German authorities and the Jewish community. Amongst its members were Isaac Sender, Shlomo Koifman, Ben Zion Broide and Moshe Zut headed it. During the initial days, some of the Jews of Ilja still lived in a tar factory outside of the ghetto in a distance of two kilometers from the town. Amongst the Jewish families who lived there was our own family, the Rubin family, and the Kopilovich family. Every day some Jews would leave the ghetto to work in the factory. Life continued and every day brought new rules. For example, Jews were not allowed to barter with Christians and they were not to be compensated for their work. Jews were not allowed to walk on the sidewalk, but only in the middle of the street like animals. They also had to wear yellow patches and they were not allowed to leave town.
The Food Supply in the Ghetto
The allocation of food for the Jewish population in the ghetto was the responsibility of the Judenrat and the Jewish population. Therefore, there was only a very small amount of food available. As the main go-betweens, the Jews who lived outside of the ghetto sneaked in most of the food available. Different trades were conducted with the local non-Jewish population. They supplied food to the pharmacy and from there it was transferred to other places. The Jews of the ghetto who went to work as forced labor outside of the ghetto would secretly barter with the local population for food staples. People who were very poor were helped by the rest of the Jews in the ghetto. Most trades involved exchanging either money or personal belongings for food. There were no Jewish doctors in town even before the war, but outside of the ghetto lived a Polish doctor by the name of Stanislav Yakstir. He was a true humanitarian who had a great love for humanity. He did not care about the danger involved in communicating with Jews and would sneak into the Ghetto in order to tend to the sick, doing this out of compassion, not for money. His wife, also a physician, was much like him and expressed her deep compassionate feelings for the Jewish people. During Soviet rule this family was already loved by the entire population and Doctor Yakstir had been a member of Gur Soviet, the town committee.
The Day of the Slaughter and the Onset of the Underground
In January of 1942 some of the Jewish youth decided to organize cells to fight the Nazis. The first organizers came from the refugees who arrived from Warsaw, Lodge and other areas of the Soviet Union. They had arrived in our area in 1939 after Warsaw and Lodge fell into German hands. Some of them were able to contact the Soviet partisans that organized in the area between Minsk and Plashetznitz. Slowly, more and more cells organized in our area but life in town continued without much change until the day of the big slaughter. There was a small town named Chatsensitz near Ilja. The Jewish population of that town, about seventy souls, worked in a factory of meat and
salami products under the management of a German SS man. On a Saturday evening on March 14, 1942, a Soviet partisan with a base nearby attacked the factory, kidnapped the manager and took all the products into the forest.
The next morning, on March 15th in the early morning, a large troop of policemen from Vileyka and a nearby area arrived in Ilja. Claiming that the Jews had worked with partisans to coordinate the attack, they used this attack on the factory as an excuse to annihilate the Jews of Ilja. They looked in the surrounding villages for the partisans but the next evening on the 16th of March, they returned with large army units and policemen. The Jews of Ilja knew in their hearts that this was a very bad omen. During that night, no one slept. Everyone lay in their beds fully dressed and alert to what was happening outside. Despite this, people refused to believe that the Germans were planning a mass murder. When nothing happened during the night, the young people went early in the morning to work in the forest as usual and some of them arrived there before dawn. As soon as dawn came the Germans put blockades all around the town and all the roads from the ghetto were lined with troops holding automatic rifles. Assisted by the local and Lithuanian police specially brought from other regions, they soon started going from home to home. Searching for every man, woman and child, they removed them from their homes and forced them to run to the designated central locations in the market. Four SS men with automatic rifles arrived at our house near the tar factory outside of town. They forcefully took all my family members, as well as the other workers and their children, to the marketplace in Ilja. My brother Majrim Rubin (According to a report from Yad Vashem, Majrim Rubin was born in Ilja, Poland in 1926 to Zeev and Yehudit. He was a single student and prior to World War II lived in Ilja, Poland. During the war he resided in Wilno, Poland. Majrim died in 1942 in Ilja, Poland.
This information is based on a page of testimony submitted on 11/07/1955 by his brother.), who was about 16, was taken out of his workplace by an SS man. He was shot and killed at the entrance of the house in front of his family. He lay in the middle of a big pool of blood but no one could stop the shooting because they were all forced to run. While I was running I saw many of my friends trying to run away on the frozen river, in the direction of the forest. The Germans chased them and kept shooting with automatic rifles. Some of the SS people who guarded us left us and also opened fire toward these escaping Jews. With my own eyes I saw the bloody death of many of my good friends. I heard my father Wolf Rubin scream, “What is happening here? Where are they chasing us to?” He could not continue since an SS man who heard him hit him with his rifle and with his face running red with blood, he quieted down. In this condition we arrived at the market with most of the Jewish population. There were babies, toddlers, women and old people. Shaking from fear and the cold, they all stood in the crowded area. New groups arrived constantly. They all had been ordered to run by the murderers.
On the 3rd of May Street, the body of Jakov Brunsztejn lay dead. He had attempted to hide in the barn of Viyar Mee, a Christian resident of the town, but Viyer Mee found him and brought the SS men to the barn. They shot him on the spot. (Report taken from Yad Vashem: Jakov Brunsztejn was born in Ilja, Poland in 1913 to Yehuda. He was a teacher and single. Prior to World War II he lived in Ilja, Poland. During the war, he resided in Ilja, Poland. Jakov died in 1942 in Ilja, Poland. This information is based on a page of testimony submitted on 04/05/1956 by his brother-in-law, a Shoah survivor.) People who were too old or too sick to leave their homes were shot in cold-blood in their own homes either sitting at their tables or lying in their beds.
Many of the young people that gathered in the market talked among themselves and decided to resist the Germans and try to escape. They told their parents, “We must try to jump the guards and policemen and each one of us will try to run wherever we can.” Their parents, especially their mothers, were very much against this plan. Even at this moment they still believed that God would help them and they never lost their faith. So with hearts full of bitterness and desperation, the youth decided to give up.
I remember seeing Reb Avraham Yitzhok, the shochet (kosher slaughterer) of the town. He was dressed in his holiday clothes and his talit was under his arms. His face was filled with a holy glow. He had also been taken to the market and throughout the entire walk and in the market, he never stopped reading Psalm chapters…
In this manner the German masters, their assistants and comrades continued to harass and gather all the Jews of the town in the market. More and more Jews were crowded into the gathering spot and They all shook from the cold winter weather. A few Christian wagoneers from the local population who assisted the Germans came by and informed the SS that a group of young Jews hidden in the nearby forest were armed with axes. A group of police immediately were dispatched and after some time they returned with a group of about fifteen badly beaten Jewish youth. At this point, it was apparent that the SS murderers were not content with just killing the Jews. They wished to have their possessions too.
They announced that everyone who gave their valuables out of their own free will would be spared. Some of the Jews wanted to believe this so they went with the Germans to their hiding places and showed them where they had some valuables and money. The Germans took everything and executed them on the spot. Avraham Vaines (Taken from Yad Vashem: [Avraham] Vaines was born in Ilja, Poland in 1903 to Moshe and Perla. He was a lesopromyshlennik (a timber industry worker) and single. Prior to World War II, he lived in Ilja, Poland. During the war he was in Ilja, Poland. He died in 1942 in Ilja, Poland. This information is based on a page of testimony submitted on 10/25/2001 by his cousin. Another report was given by the son of his brother, Yitzhok Vaines, in 1955), who was thirty-six years old, had been hidden in a wood storage area when a local Belarusian policeman found him. Vaines begged him, “You know me well. Can you pretend that you didn't see me?” The policeman said nothing but eventually brought back an SS man. Vaines became enraged, taking a big iron pole and hitting the Belarusian policeman on the head while screaming, “Traitor! Criminal!” When he started attacking the SS man, one of the policemen shot Vaines and he fell dead while protecting his honor.
Around noontime the Germans started picking out from amongst the Jews a few professional people that they felt were still needed at that time. This selection was done by a local Belarusian and about twenty heads of families with their wives and children were put aside in a storage area. They were blacksmiths, plumbers, pharmacists and so on.
All of a sudden, Malkis the forester came running. He was a Polish inspector who collaborated with the Nazis and had been appointed by the Germans as head forester. He knew my family members and after talking to the head of the SS, he was allowed to take my family out of the main group and set us aside with the professionals. My good friend Sara Sosman was added to my family as my wife. Her sister Lyuba, who had a baby girl of about two years of age, gave her daughter to Sara and said, “Take my little baby Judith with you. Maybe she will survive this way.” For this reason my family members survived the selection. Everyone on the spot understood and there were no illusions of the fate of the people who were not selected.
During the Soviet time, they had established in the vegetable garden of Vaines a huge freezer for fruit and meat products, and next to it was a deep hole in the ground to store the ice. This ice storage area was used that day for the mass burial of nine hundred Jews from Ilja, men, women, children and babies alike. All the Jews selected to be killed in the market were taken to this site. On both sides of the entrance stood SS men armed with machine guns. As soon as the people arrived, they were ordered to remove their clothes and run inside, where they were shot from all sides and fell directly into the frozen pit. This was the last walk of most of the Jews of our town on this day of slaughter. The murderers then poured oil onto the walls of the building and set it on fire. The local Christian population later told us that for many hours they could hear from afar the screams and anguished cries of the wounded who did not die from the bullets. The fire had woken them from their unconsciousness. Thus ended Ilja, a Jewish community with centuries of a glorious history.
The next morning the SS and the Lithuanian police left the area. As ordered by the town's mayor and the local police, the few survivors were transferred to a small ghetto. Amongst the survivors were also a few like Rabbi Remez who had been able to hide in their homes. A few of the so-called specialists whose lives had been spared were ordered to harness sleighs and to go amongst the yards and homes of the former ghetto to collect the bodies of those killed in their own homes. All the bodies were gathered and buried and the few survivors continued with lives filled with insecurity and the looming specter of imminent death. Life continued like this for three months, but the bitter end did not wait long. On the seventh of June in 1942, most of the survivors met their deaths.
The Day the Remnants Perished
As I wrote before, Inspector Malkis, savior of my family during the day of killing, was a collaborator with the Germans. Since he knew the forests in the region very well, he knew where the Soviet partisans were hiding out and establishing bases. Often he would go to the SS troops and tell them of the disturbances in the forest. When the headquarters of the partisans discovered Malkis' collaboration with the Nazis, they had a trial in absentia and sentenced him to death. After some time they were able to carry out the sentence on the Saturday afternoon of June 6. Two partisans dressed in plain clothing arrived at Malkis' headquarters, entered his room and asked him to verify his identity. When he admitted to being Malkis they forced him to raise his hands, collected all documents from his office and shot him on the spot. Immediately, news spread to the town of this occurrence.
The Jews instantly knew what was coming next but they couldn't escape. All the roads were closed and the town was surrounded by SS units, army units and policemen from Vileyka and the surrounding area. The next day, on the early Sunday morning of June 7, the Germans prepared for the annihilation of the ghetto. At dawn they started taking Jewish men, women and children out of their homes. This time the search was very precise and detailed; the Germans searched every basement and attic. During the first massacre, a few Jews had been able to hide in their basements or other hideouts that they had prepared but this was not possible this time. The search lasted the entire day. At 5:00 in the afternoon a Christian man with whom I had been friends with since childhood came to my workplace in the tar factory. Since he worked in the office of Malkis, he gave me the details of everything that had occurred in town and urged me to run away quickly since he knew that the SS would arrive any minute to take the Jews who worked in the tar factory. We were the last to be taken. He kept begging me to escape since he really cared about me and wanted me to survive. After begging me to leave, he left us.
I stood there with my beloved father as if we were busy with work. Both us were acutely aware of what was to come. I said to him, “Dear father, if we value life, we must escape quickly because we know that this time, there will be no one to save us from the hands of the Nazis. Our former protector Malkis is dead and there is no one left to help us. Let's go hide amongst the wood chips and logs stacked as high as towers. We can hide in them until the annihilation finishes and we can maybe survive.” While I was still talking I saw from afar a long parade of SS men and policemen approaching the tar factory.
I urged my father to hurry because I knew we only had a few moments to escape. My father turned to me with his usual glowing face and looked at me for a minute. He then said, “My dear son, if you want to save yourself, do it and don't pay any attention to me. Perhaps the merciful God will assist you, but I cannot join you. It's too late to save the rest of the family and I cannot leave them alone.
I must go with them. I must join my partner in life and our sons. I must not let them go to their last walk alone. How can I run away and survive as the rest of the family perishes? No, I cannot do it. If you, my son, want to do it, don't let your heart fall. Try to escape and maybe you will be able to survive. My blessing, the blessing of your loving father, is given to you wherever you go and wherever you'll be.” (Report taken from Yad Vashem: Wolf Rubin was born in Dolhinow, Poland in 1890 to Menakhem and Reizl. He was a merchant and married to Yehudit. Wolf died in 1942 in Ilja, Poland. This information is based on a page of testimony submitted on 11/07/1955 by his son.)
My eyes filled with tears as my father forced himself to look directly above my head. He turned around and entered the house. I stood in the yard in shock and looked around. The sun was setting and I could hear the sound of the waves on the Ilja River. The trees of the forest were lively with blossoms. How beautiful was this world? Everything around me exuded beautiful colors and vibrant shades of life, but we had received a sentence of death and annihilation.
The sound that engines make as they stop, the barking orders of the Nazis and the curses that sounded like predatory beasts ready to devour awoke me from my daydream. I decided that I would fight my fate. I would resist. I would survive.
I quickly jumped amongst the towers of wooden logs and I made myself into a very small ball so I could not be seen. I could still see everything that was occurring though. I saw very clearly how they took my family members and my relatives out of the house. I saw them take my beloved father. I saw him standing in the yard and staring at an unseen point as if he were looking for somebody. I saw how they took my dear mother. Altogether there were thirteen souls in the house, including my aunt and her two children who had escaped from Russia and hidden with us. Amongst them was also my fiancée Sara Sosman (Report taken from Yad Vashem: Sara Sosman was born in Wilna, Poland in 1919 to Volf and Khaia. During the war in Poland, Sara died in 1942 in Ilja, Poland. This information is based on a page of testimony submitted on 11/07/1955 by her friend.) and the daughter of her sister, little Yehudit, whom I have already described saving during the original massacre. The Germans took them all. The murderers, may their names be erased, realized that I was not amongst the people and started looking for me. Only when it became dark did they disappear, taking away all the dearly beloved people of my life. I saw it all.
I continued sitting there quietly. I watched the shadows grow long, watched as the darkness swallowed me up. I stumbled out of my hideout and for the last time entered our home. As I entered I realized that everything had been tampered with and thrown everywhere. It was clear that the killers had been searching for gold and other valuables. I dressed quickly and took my shoes, running towards the river. Crossing it and entering the forest, I walked for some distance and then sat on a tree stump at the edge of the forest. I pondered my fate and my destiny while from afar I could hear shooting and see sparks in the air. In those desperate cries and sighs of pain, I realized that at that moment the Germans were killing all that I knew and loved. Without a sound, my entire body screamed, cried, mourned. I wished to cry loudly but the tears never came. I felt as if my heart had hardened into a rock. A wave of anger swept over me. Extreme rage and desire for revenge boiled my blood and I swore to myself that I would fight for my life and for my honor. I swore to avenge my family wherever and whenever I could as long as I had one drop of blood.
The jarring sound of machine gun fire and flying bullets awoke me from this emotional vow. I immediately realized that in order to fulfill this vow I would have to have a clear head. I told myself that I must immediately leave the area in order to realize my destiny. I decided to go to Chatzintzitz, a large ranch that had belonged to the nobleman Borovsky before the war. I remembered that there were about seventy Jews who lived and worked there. I decided that I must quickly let them know of what had occurred in Ilja since they were inevitably next. I had to warn them so they could perhaps survive and join me in the fight against the Germans. I continued walking in deep thought for about sixteen kilometers. At about one in the morning, I arrived at Chatzintzitz. Jumping over the barbed wire and then slowly crawling, I arrived at one of the homes and quietly knocked on the window. Chayim Yosef Kopilovich and his family lived here.
When he heard the noise coming from the window, he woke up and thinking it was a cat, he started shooing me away saying, “Psik Psik.” I whispered to him in Yiddish, “Don't turn on the lights. Open the door. I am a Jew.” Kopilovich opened the door and immediately recognized me. I told him to quickly go to the local leaders, Israel Zimmerman and the engineer Brunislav Rotblat from Varsha. I said that I had urgent news for them. As soon as they arrived I told them all that had occurred and that now that Ilja had been eliminated, the Germans would get to them next. They needed to escape immediately. The entire Jewish population gathered and discussed what to do. The women cried bitterly and many were afraid of running. In the end, their instinct to survive drove them and they all decided to escape deep into the forest. At four in the morning, as dusk approached, we left Chatzintzitz and began our new life. The men immediately started digging holes in the ground and covered them with tree branches and greenery. Inside, women, children and elderly people hid in the damp darkness. The young men and teenagers started looking for the partisans. After a few days we were able to get in touch with the Soviet partisans base in the forest about twenty-five kilometers from where we had left the women, the elderly and the children.
The Partisans in the Forest
My contact with the partisans in the forest was a friend of mine, a forester from Zatzarnuya. He arranged for a meeting with the headquarters and I did not ask for this meeting for my sake only. I wanted them to accept all the other men who were with me. They agreed to take us as long as we would take care of ourselves and acquire our own weapons. We obtained these weapons by paying farmers in the surrounding areas. Once we had some weapons we decided to take the rest by force. There were two partisan brigades in the forest in this area and all the able healthy young men joined those brigades.
One of those brigades was named Shtromboya, headed by a Russian colonel named Lunin. Most of the people who escaped from Chatzintzitz joined this brigade. I joined the other brigade. I had an atrazanka, a short rifle, and on the 25th of June 1942, I joined the brigade to fight for our homeland. We were led by Vladimir Zacharov, a Soviet officer who at the onset of the war had become a prisoner of war and later joined the resistance after escaping from German captivity. I came to this unit at four in the morning. This particular unit only had fourteen people and most of them were prisoners of war. They did not have sufficient ammunition and had no explosives.
Clearly we could do very little due to this lack of equipment and power. When we would gather with our leader Zacharov to plan missions, people looked unfavorably at me, the only Jew in the unit. Our main goal at this time was collecting explosives for sabotage missions (e.g. derailing German trains through explosives, planting land mines, and preparing weapons). We went to abandoned battlefields and looked for explosives that hadn't been activated. We brought all that we found to the camp and carefully took everything apart, collecting all of the explosive material. From that raw material, we made weapons. The farmers in the surrounding area let us know where we could find ammunition and stored explosives.
We began collecting them and also urged anyone in the local population with military training to join us. Since we were a small unit, in the first few months our main missions consisted of putting out explosives for army trains as well as attacking small divisions of German armies traveling on the road between Vilna and Minsk. Our weapons were primitive. We would go to the train tracks, dig a hole in the ground and put in our explosives, tied to a long rope. We would go back between two and three hundred meters and as soon as the train arrived to a certain point, we would pull the rope and cause explosions. In this way we were able to destroy some army trains and kill some Germans. Most of our missions took place near the old Polish-Soviet border next to the forest surrounding Minsk. As time passed, more and more Jews joined our unit and we were eventually able to be a truly active battalion.
The effectiveness of our unit greatly improved. We started getting military supplies at regular intervals. When we didn't have sufficient supplies we would go to the nearby villages and demand supplies. In many cases we gave the supplies to isolated Jews hiding in the forest. The Germans became increasingly bothered by the resistance and they tried using blockades to catch us. During the months of September, October and November, they made a huge blockade all around us but were still unsuccessful. By the December of 1942 our unit had become much larger and our situation greatly improved again. Now we could hold larger scale raids and also collaborate with other units for complex operations. We finally made contact with the Red Army. They supplied us with paratroopers, soldiers in the regular army and trained in pyrotechnics. The paratroopers brought along some high-quality explosives. Now we were ready for large scale operations.
The Attack on Austishitsky Gorodok
Located about forty kilometers from Minsk on the road towards Vilna was the shtetl Aushtishitsky Gorodok. Since this town stood on a very strategic location even during peacetime, the Germans established a base there in 1942. The Germans stored a large supply of weapons and other essential supplies in this area. During a bitterly cold night in December of 1942, we were told to attack the base. We left on sleighs for the mission on wearing white sheets since snow covered the area and we wanted to be camouflaged. Before we left, each person received a supply of food and a little bit of smagon, homemade alcohol given to warm ourselves.
This mission started badly for me personally. Just before we left, my commander Zacharov ordered me to stay in the camp and not join the unit in its large operation with the Shtormobiya. This made me very unhappy and I suspected that Zacharov was suspicious of me because I'm a Jew. I kept begging him to let me go but he refused. When I thought that there was no choice I said, “No matter what you say I will not stay behind.” He became very serious and looked at me very angrily. All of a sudden without saying anything he started smiling. I saw this smile as an agreement and so I left with my comrades. When we arrived at the place we separated into smaller units. We settled down and waited until the zero hour, which was the moment when the rest of the units would arrive. When everyone arrived the entire area was surrounded. They sent me with a group of four others to go near the barbed wire to break it and then to light the barns on fire. Burning the barns was the signal for our brigade to attack from all sides. We came near but the Germans discovered us before we were able to break the fence and burn the barns. As soon as we reached about hundred meters from the fence, the dogs started barking.
As soon as these dogs barked, the Germans fired a flare rocket to light up the area. When they saw us, they opened fire immediately and we hid and returned fire. Meanwhile, the rest of the unit on the right and left of us came close and the Germans started firing to these other directions, giving us the opportunity to complete our specific mission. After a short time all of the barns were on fire and the entire area was lit with sparkling flames. The Germans were struck by great shock and panic as our units pushed forward. The unit to the right of us reached the enemy and after throwing some grenades, they were able to kill them. It took less than half an hour before the Germans ran for their lives, leaving everything behind. We were able to capture large amounts of weaponry and other supplies. We even found an anti-tank cannon.
During this mission we suffered nineteen casualties (four fatalities, fifteen wounded). Among the heroes that fell was one commander by the name of Eliushka, an excellent and extremely brave person. After the operation we took with us the doctor of that town and his wife. This doctor later became the resident doctor of the partisan base. We returned to the base at four in the morning. My participation in this mission was the opportunity for me to join other military missions that our unit participated in. Shortly after this I was appointed to be the commander of a unit of saboteurs and fifteen people were under my command. Amongst them was an amazing person by the name of Vladya.
He was a very courageous, good-hearted, stubborn and able-bodied man, always ready to join a mission. The partisan movement kept expanding the number of troops in the entire area and in April of 1943, all the units united for a large military mission. The brigade was divided into four regiments, all under the authority of the commander of the entire mission, Colonel Lunin. His assistant was Zacharov, our comrade who had been promoted to the rank of major. Each battalion received specific instructions to control different geographic areas and special units were kept for contact amongst the battalions to initiate cooperative movements.
Shortly before that mission the late March of 1943 I had an unpleasant experience that illustrated the anti-Semitism even among the partisans. One day when we rested in the village Sorotzini, a drunken Ukrainian partisan pointed at me and asked, “What is this Jew doing with us?” I became enraged and slapped his face with all my might. He drew his weapon and attempted to attack me, but other comrades stood between us and protected me. They confiscated his weapon and tied him to his bed for the rest of the night. The next morning he came to me and apologized.
I forgave him, but from that point on I watched him carefully since I had heard from others that he had talked to them about his desire for revenge against me and his false plea for forgiveness. This blind hatred towards Jews caused many partisans to lose their minds. Truthfully, I must say that this behavior was foolish because if people complained about another comrade, he would immediately be taken to trial. In many instances regarding both Jews and non-Jews, people were accused of poor behavior and subsequently executed without much investigation. During this time we received some Jewish fighters from Minsk. Amongst them were two Jews who had been forced to be clerks for the Nazis before escaping to the forest. Someone told me that these Jews had treated the Russian prisoners of war mercilessly. All of their explanations and convincing testimonies did not save them. Even giving them exact information on Minsk and the surrounding area did not save them. They were put on trial and received the death penalty and shot in the forest not far from the river Brezina. Such testimonials brought an end to the lives of many partisans.
On The Road Between Ilja and Krasne
Until the end of the summer of 1943, most of my missions as a commander of a saboteur unit were small operations aimed at destroying the transportation infrastructure of the Germans. During those missions we went deep inside the German lines. Many times we crossed the Polish border and had missions near Ilja. In June of 1943 we had a mission on the road between Ilja and Krasne. From the villagers living by the road, I received very reliable information about German movements. In the little village of Rinevka, there was a big factory for cardboard. Every day the Germans would transfer the finished products in cars to the train that took it to Vilna. We decided to put an end to this. We set mines on the road near the place where they would meet the train and waited for the explosion. To our great sorrow the mines did not explode and the Germans continued without realizing that we had planned for their deaths. As soon as the Germans left we returned to check why the mines hadn't exploded. My friend Vladya touched the mine and as soon as he touched it, the mine exploded and he was killed on the spot. With our hearts filled with pain and anger, we entered the factory and destroyed it. We then buried our comrade Vladya in the forest near the road between the two towns.
Despite the fact that I only had sabotage missions, I had many exciting moments and terrible episodes that caused me great emotional pain. I would like to mention one such episode. In July of 1943 we captured three bandrobets, who were soldiers from the Ukrainian battalions that assisted the Germans. These Ukrainian battalions were very fierce and horrible enemies and any partisan who fell into their hands was tortured. No one was ever left alive. As very loyal servants to the Germans, they also took part in missions to kill Jews. They went on many missions to catch Jews and the other non-fighting populations hidden in the forest. When they found such populations they would rob, rape and torture with no pity, so it's no surprise that the partisans hated these bandrobet bands.
When we took these prisoners of war, nobody wanted to investigate much. We put them on military trial and gave them the death penalty. I was amongst the ones to execute the three men. I did this task with mixed feelings. On one hand I was happy that I could take revenge on the enemies who had spilled Jewish blood and tortured my people. On the other hand, for many days I could not let go of the awful image when they stood helplessly across from our line of executers. They cried and begged for their souls as they awaited my command to open fire against them. I took control of my feelings and yelled the word, “Fire!” All the rifles simultaneously fired and the three men fell at once. I could not erase this picture from my mind… There was a big difference between killing during battle and executing after a trial. I cannot deny that for many days my heart ached and my conscience bothered me, preventing me from finding rest. In spite of all the troubles and the suffering, I had not lost my humanity yet.
Our saboteur missions continued in this manner. Here I must recall the actions and heroic death of my Jewish friend Chayim Tzichok. He was an excellent partisan who received many awards and titles, amongst them a hero of the Soviet Union. He took part in forty-four missions against the enemies and in many, he fought the enemy face to face. He appeared Aryan, which made it easy for him to dress as a Nazi. Many times he would go to the center of German activities and kidnap German officers, bringing them to the partisan headquarters. One night he took part in a mission in the town of Zaslavi, a central town that also had a train station. He was killed while running at the head of the unit attacking the Germans. At his burial he received a ceremony with full honors. At his grave, the head of the brigade, Lunin, eulogized him, describing all of Chayim's heroic missions and good deeds. They fired shots into the air to honor his memory. With the rest of the Jews in this battalion, I listened to his speech with emotional cries. This ceremony proved to everyone that amongst the Jews there also existed fighters who would fight with courage. It was a lie when our enemies said that Jews always ran away from battle. For a while, the non-Jews let us be and did not harass us. After the spring of 1943, my unit started taking part in large operations.
The Attack of Plescenicy
In late July, we received information we would take part in a large-scale operation near the town of Plescenicy. The operation would use the entire brigade, comprised of eight hundred troops. On a night in mid-August in 1943, we received an order to close in on the town from all directions. This town was on the main crossroads that the Germans took to reach deeper into the Soviet Union. The town had a large weaponry and ammunition storage facility and also carried other essential supplies. It was also an important strategic point, controlling telecommunication of Hitler's army. The mission consisted of taking control of the town, to confiscating the weapons, and disconnecting the telecommunication lines. Not far from the town there was an important German vantage point on a tall hill where one could see the entire road from inside the ranch. As long as this heavily-guarded vantage point was there, nothing could be done inside the town. Our unit was charged with capturing this vantage point.
We walked in total silence under the darkness of the night. We came near the vantage point and one of our troop members threw a hand grenade directly inside the German military post. We also took out some explosives and lit them while the rest of the unit opened fire with rifles and machine guns. After a few minutes the military post with its formidable array of machine guns was put out of commission. This was a sign for the entire brigade to start attacking the town. The troops rapidly took control of the town and the operation was declared a full success. We took much weaponry, ammunition, medical supplies and food. We also confiscated all the money that was stored in the local banks. I must point out that there were very few casualties on our side during this operation. I myself was lightly wounded in the hand from a stray bullet. I did not even realize this at the moment, but I eventually got a very high fever and required medical attention for quite some time.
My Work in the Combat Intelligence Unit
A few weeks after the attack on Plescenicy and after my recovery, I was transferred to a unit of combat intelligence. Our job was to gather information about native Russians who worked in civil institutions and military offices for the Germans. Our job was to get acquainted with those people and then persuade them to work for the partisans. This was a very stressful and dangerous job, but eventually it resulted in much success. Various missions were later expedited by the information we received from them and many times they fully assisted in the missions. We were able to reach places that were heavily guarded by the Germans with their help and once we gained access, we were able to plant explosives or steal maps and army plans, allowing us to keep track of the enemy armies.
Now we were in the rear of the German lines and sometimes very near Ilja. I took part in such missions until the winter of 1943-1944, until the big blockade that Germans started against the partisans. One of my first and most successful missions in this unit involved catching a spy who collaborated with the Germans. He was a saboteur that was active in our ranks. Catching him was an unexpected coincidence. One Saturday at the end of September of 1943, right before dusk, my unit was commanded to prepare an ambush on road between Minsk and Vilna to try to catch a living “tongue,” meaning a live German for the purpose of receiving information. As we approached the road, we came by Osteshitsky Gorodok.
From there we went west and from a distance of a few kilometers away, we began an ambush near a German camp. We knew that during weekends the Germans did not man their posts as well as during the week. They tended to look for women to spend the night with and sometimes they would not return until the next morning. We settled there waiting for those carousing soldiers to return. We spent all of Saturday night and Sunday afternoon waiting. Finally, just before dusk we saw a man dressed in civilian clothing walking towards the camp in the direction of the headquarters.
As I looked through my binoculars, I was shocked to recognize the teacher-partisan, the editor of the newspaper of the partisan unit. This seemed very suspicious and I told my friends about it. I took two comrades while the rest of the soldiers waited in the base (“ambush spot”) and went towards the men. We saw that he had a personal weapon and he carried a big bag. As soon as he recognized us he panicked and tried to escape, but we caught him and stripped him of his weapons. We also checked his bag, where we found a detailed list of all the double spies. We immediately understood that he was planning on giving this to the Germans to destroy our cell. We knew that we had no time to hesitate so we quickly tied him up and put him on a horse, bringing him to brigade headquarters.
After a short investigation he confessed that he indeed was a spy and for many months had been working for the Germans. He had exact information about everything that was occurring in our unit as well as in others. Some of the information he had already transferred but we had prevented him from transferring the list of our planted assistants. We notified all of our contacts at once and they sent the information to the main headquarters of the Red Army. We watched him for many days until they were able to fly him to the main headquarters.
Breaking Through the German Lines
The general attacks of the Germans during the early months of 1943 and 1944 completely failed. The defeated German army started retreating from the Russian front. As a result, the Germans decided to bring in new troops from other occupied European countries to the Russian front. They needed to stop the Red Army which surged west against the German front lines like a ceaseless metal sea of weaponry. The partisans who positioned at the rear of the forests of Belarus took control of the roads and often derailed trains, broke communication lines and destroyed infrastructure.
The German headquarters had no choice but to try to get rid of the partisan enemy working against them from the rear. They tried to destroy the partisans by encircling them with a massive blockade. We started feeling the impact of this blockade in the months of February and March in 1944. The culminating point of the mission arrived in April of 1944. Thirty divisions of different artillery, SS units, German and Ukranian soldiers all took part in clearing the forest of partisans. We fought fearlessly for every piece of forest while constantly retreating towards the Barzina River, according to the plan of the general headquarters. Those constant fights lasted until all of our units arrived at the Barzina River. Once we reached the river we stood in a long line along its shore, sandwiched between two German forces only a few kilometers apart. We received an order to fight regardless of the cost and to keep our position on the river. The fight was fierce and seemingly perpetual. We were backed against the roaring river by the best of the German force. The battles lasted many bloody weeks until certain spots of the enemy forces finally fell. We received an order to go west and buttress the front for the Soviets. We had many casualties but we were still able to break the enemy lines near Smolensk.
They could not recapture control of the line anymore and started retreating in panic. We returned after those bitter battles to our original base of operation in the district of Minsk. When we returned, we found it was a ground zero of mass destruction. Many villages had been abandoned by the natives, but yet nature was still beautiful as ever – the fields stood strong and green, filled with blossoms; the wheat was tall and ready for harvest. This was the June of 1944.
We walked in small units through muddy trails in the fields. Once in a while we would encounter German forces that immediately dropped their weapons to be taken by the Red Army as prisoners of war. As soon as the partisan units were able to break the front, the regular Red Army started a big westward push. Many German units therefore found themselves surrounded and had no choice but to surrender. We knew that it was just a matter of days before the Red Army reached the road between Minsk and Vilna. Our job was now to clear the road. On the thirtieth of June 1944 while walking toward the road between Minsk and Plescenicy, we saw from afar a massive army force coming toward us.
We came about a hundred meters away from them and then I ordered everyone to stop. All of a sudden they also ordered us to stop. I realized that this was not one of our troop units and so I ordered everyone to open fire. There was then fire from all directions directed towards us. I glanced over and witnessed two of my friends crumble into bloody masses, ridden with bullets. I then felt a strong blow near my eyes that knocked me down. Others around me were able to hide amongst the grass stalks.
I remember nothing else because I lost consciousness very quickly. As I was told later, I lay in the field unconscious for a long time until some farmers and partisans found me and transferred me to the hospital of the brigade Revenger. When I woke up, I had a case of amnesia. For a month I recovered at the headquarters in Minsk, where my troops greeted me happily since they had been sure that I had died. At the end of July, I was flown to a military hospital all the way in Moscow to continue my treatment.
By the end of August 1944, all the partisan units from Belarus had united with the Red Army and started fighting on the Warsaw front and other parts of Poland. The cities were cleansed of the German presence. In Minsk itself there was a splendid parade of partisans along with the members of the Red Army, but I did not take part in it since I was still recovering. After two operations, I was flown to Peatigorsk in Caocas to recover.
There I received very warm and professional treatment since the female Jewish doctor who took care of me was Doctor Kapilovich from Vilna. She treated me like a mother would her son. Even when I recovered sufficiently, she did not let me leave since she knew very well that there was no place to return to – no family and no home.
Truthfully, the conditions at the hospital were wonderful, but I wanted to return to my home. I lived with the irrational illusion and hope that some my dear ones had survived.
During the winter months of 1945 I started on my journey back home and it wasn't until April of 1945 that I arrived in Ilja. Before reaching Ilja, I had stopped in Vileyka and reunited with the Polish doctor Yakstir and his wife from Ilja. They treated me as if I were a close relative. They begged me to stay with them and to work in the hospital, but I admitted that I could not bear doing so. I needed a rest from my depression and sorrow. While walking in such a state in the streets of Vileyka, I met my dear childhood friend Jonah Rijer. He had returned to Ilja long before me and now he was managing the flower mill in Viyazhin next to Ilja. He took me to Ilja, where I met my friend Shraga Solominsky and other young Jewish survivors from Ilja.
I cannot explain the intense feelings that washed through me, over me. I realized that I stood there with the only remnants of Ilja, the sole survivors of the Holocaust pyre. The quaint town of my childhood and of sweet memories no longer existed, wiped off the face of the earth and of memory.
No amount of tears and bloodshed could ever bring it back. Memories of better days were only that. Memories. As a husk of its former self and scarred with the desperation of orphans and widows, the town had died and with it, my desperate hopes.
I arrived at Stara Huta and encountered the Christian maid who used to work for us before the days of blood and fire. She was dressed in the clothes of my mother and her husband wore my father's clothes. My breath caught in my throat and all I could hear was the blood pulsing through my head. They did not feel happy seeing me either. They saw me as the silent and frozen persecutor. It would have been easier for them if I had yelled at them, but I couldn't. My voice had escaped me, but I screamed wordlessly on the inside.
I was meeting with shadows of my childhood, with those who took care of me in infancy, with those who had superimposed their lives upon my dead family. All I did was take my cousin's ring from this maid. This ring is the only remnant of my entire family who went to the road of no return with most of the Jews of Ilja. The thought that I could settle here and start my life anew expired in that instant. With each step, I felt the weight of the graves of my family. If I wanted to survive, I could not remain in that town of nothingness, where orphans stumbled through the streets and death appeared in everything.
I left Ilja. For some time I worked with Shraga in Viyazhin but I could not find rest there either. I moved in with my friend Rothblatt the engineer who managed a rubbing alcohol factory in Chimovishtzina near Molodechno, but here again I could not find rest. Here I encountered Alexandrovich from Grodno, a partisan from our unit, a major sergeant. He was a proud Jew who had a rich past. Some of his family members had communist ties when the area was controlled by Poland before the war and his nephew had been a well-known and dedicated communist leader.
During the 1930s, in the time between the wars, Alexandrovich had been a prisoner at Kartozbraza, an infamous concentration camp. Now he lived in Vileyka and I befriended him. Despite all of these friendships, I still lacked something, anything that could keep me in my homeland.
Filled with pain and loss, I realized I could never find rest there. This occurred strongly to me after one particular day on the train to Oshmeny when I encountered true anti-Semites. People started blaming me as a cowardly Jewish parasite who did not contribute to society, who did not fight against the Germans. This was the last straw that broke the camel's back. I couldn't take it anymore. After enduring such blood and fire, after taking part in this war of revenge where I defended my honor as a man and a Jew, after almost going blind from my battle wounds, after all the bitterness of existing in this black world void of my loved ones, after my heart had emptied, I could not handle these lies and blind hatred. I had no choice but to leave behind my childhood and my hopes of staying. I knew that I had to leave this land, a land soaked with Jewish blood. I had to go west to reach the land of Israel. I knew that I would do anything to start a new life. I transferred to the area that is now Poland and from there, arrived at the land of Israel.
Now I live in Haifa, Israel and I have tried to put the past behind me. I have a family and I look towards life and the future ahead, yet still the past continues to fester deep down inside of me.