The Struggle for Life
By Shraga Dgani (Feivel Solomiansky) From Iliya
I am Shraga, son of Eliyahu and Haya Solominsky. I was born in 1909, in Iliya, and stayed there until its destruction. I hereby give my testimony in writing to commemorate the events of the destruction and exterminations for the generations to come.
I will forever carry in my heart, the destruction and horrible bloody events of thousands of Jewish communities, my town iliya, among them. A town that was eliminated from the face of the earth by the blood thirsty Nazis and their various helpers.
On the night of March 16th, 1942, the date of the first slaughter, I woke up from my sleep to the sound of boots and marches, military orders, cries of women and children. I felt that our end had come I decided to hide with the hope to escape. I left the house. Everything was covered with snow that kept on coming down for several days. I quickly dug a hiding place deep in the snow. Although it was extremely cold, I lay under the snow in silence and fear of what my destiny would be. I frequently felt the Germans’ boots walking on my head and body. The Germens were looking at the people who survived, as if they hadn’t finished their quota of blood that they were ordered to produce. I don’t know how long I was under the snow… I continued to lie there with a prayer in my heart, for the Germans not to find me…
After many hours, I heard Shlomo Koyfman’s voice calling all the survivors to come out of their hiding places, promising them in the name of the Germans that they will live, and will suffer no harm. It was then that I learned that I had been buried under the snow for almost 24 hours.
Slowly and gradually, I uncovered myself from the piles of snow. I stretched my body and bones. My whole body was frozen; my hands and legs, and my fingernails were coming off. I walked heavily as if I was filled with lead. I was hungry and I craved something hot. .. I craved to hear a person’s familiar voice… I was scared and exhausted to death. This is how I walked to Ben Zion Broideh’s house. He feared the Germans and therefore did not want to let me in. He shut his door in my face. Alone and lonely I stood outside. .. My legs led me to the tailor’s house, Pesach Gelman. I knocked on his door afraid that this door too would be shut in my face and that I would stay outside…After a little while, the door opened and I was let in the house. Pesach Gelman and his brother in law, Gitlitz, felt sorry for me. They shared their food with me and let me board in their house.
Early in the morning, Shlomo Koyfman came in and added all of us to the survivors’ list. He told all of us to move to the Ghetto where the Germans decided to hold all the survivors. The Ghetto’s boundaries were fenced with barbed wire, between Kalman Greenblat’s house and Baruch Levin’s. Every day, the gate was opened. Jews were sent to work and would come back in the evening. Since I was an expert in the Flour Mill, I received a “Shain” that enabled me to go to work without being disturbed.
Nevertheless, the persistent abuse never stopped. Not even with me.
I was always taken by surprise whenever I went to work and came back.
One day, there was a pause between me and death.
One evening, when I came back from the mill, I was ordered by one of the Germans’ guards to stop. Since I was already used to it, I did not pay attention and continued walking. The guards opened fire. I got scared and with all my might started running. I jumped over the barbed wire, went into one of the stalls, and then to the next one, and finally I hid in an old barn. After a few hours, fearing that I would be found, I came out hearing Shlomo Koyfman’s voice. He warned me to never again do such a thing. He said that thanks to his intervention, I was saved this time. However, if it happens again, nobody would be able to save me.
This was our life in the ghetto; secluded, isolated with no communication with the rest of the world. The township’s Rabbi, Avraham Eliyahu Remez, and his wife were among the survivors. The conditions were unbearable. There was insufficient food and people were starving.
Every evening when I came back from work, I would smuggle as much food as I could, despite the danger inherent in doing so. Starvation and the will to survive made me do what I did…
According to the Germans orders, the ghetto committee- the “Yudenrat”, was formed by the ghetto’s residents. It included Shlomo Koifman and the brothers Motel and Isaac Sender. It should be mentioned that they always did their best to protect the Jews and cancel the evil decrees. They always let the ghetto inhabitants know ahead of time of upcoming decrees. These representatives served daily as the address for the Germans to extort Jewish possessions; gold, jewelry, gems, furs and expensive clothes. Under the delusion that they would remain alive, the Jews gave everything to the Germans. However, after the Germans found out that there was nothing more to take, they executed the second and final slaughter. That’s how the representative of the committee, the Senders brothers, encountered their death. Isaac Sender was shot in the neck by a Gestapo officer when he tried to retrieve the gold hidden under the ceiling to give to the Germans.
That’s how we spent the days and nights… One clear day, in the early hours of the morning, we noticed an unusual movement in the German headquarters located in the Great Synagogue on the other side of the ghetto. We felt that their retaining ring was tightening around us. However when the order was given to go to work, I went with the feeling that not everything was alright. Indeed, what I feared had happened. In the evening, when I came back to the ghetto, I found it surrounded by police and army that had started to evacuate families from their houses and gathering men, women and children. I realized what was happening. Together with Simcha Foigelman, Feigel Sender and Rasha Gutman with two girls and others, we hid in Chaya Davursha Dobrobsky’s basement. My brother in law, Yehiel Segalovitch covered the storage room’s door with a rug. He himself hid in Kalman Greenblat’s horse stall. We were happy that the Germans and their helpers did not notice us, and they did not particularly search the house we hid in. One can assume that the Germans did not suspect that the house opposite the German headquarters would be used as a hiding place. Nevertheless, they searched it lightly, checked its walls and floor and then left to search other houses more thoroughly.
Shocked and squeezed together, we lay in the basement. Through the small window, we were able to see the remnant led on their last way to Vieness yards – the execution location. We could hear women’s screams, children’s cries, orders to fire and the echoes of the shots.
My brother in law Segalovitch’s hiding place was discovered. They took him out of there and put him in one of the lines of people who were being led to the slaughter. I saw him very clearly being led and walking, when all of a sudden, he jumped, broke the chain and started running, while the Germans ran after him shooting. He probably felt that his end was near; therefore, he preferred death while trying to escape. He successfully got to the river, but there, was shot to death by the murderers’ bullets. Shmuel Kagan went further than Segalovitch, but his fate was similar. He was also shot by the enemy’s bullets.
The shootings continued for a long time, and then there was silence. We kept on lying with heavy hearts. At midnight, there was a full moon. We could see the Gestapo guards clearly near the house. I made a decision. I told my friends that we are not allowed to stay in our hiding place, because the Germans might find us in the morning, and then – we will not be able to escape. We gathered the money we had, and started crawling toward the back door. We thought that we would not be discovered so quickly by the Germans. However, they noticed us and ordered us to stop. We did not obey the orders, and we started running towards the barbed wire fence to reach the river quickly with the Germans chasing us and shooting. Our clothes were torn while crossing the barbed wire fence, but we did not pay attention. We continued running to increase our chances to escape. The Germans did not stop chasing us, shooting heavily from all sides.
I got to the river first, jumped in the water and swam with my last strength crossed it. When I looked around me, I noticed that only Fogelman was behind me. The rest had not yet arrived, and I did not know their fate. It appeared that the Germans had stopped chasing us. They probably assumed that most of the escapees were still within the ghetto’s boundaries, and they wanted to catch them. It was clear that we could not wait and wonder about the whereabouts of our partners in hiding. We ran to the forest…
The forest was not an unfamiliar place to me. I knew it very well from distant and beautiful days. I was able to serve as a guide to Simcha Fogelman and proceed along hidden paths that provided us secure shelter. In the meantime, it was already daylight, and our clothes dried while we were still wearing them. We continued to walk through the forest, and our first day was over. Toward evening, we approached trust worthy farmers in the area whom we knew would not turn us in to the Germans, for food and clothes.
We reached the nearby village. We knocked on the farmer’s door whom we knew very well. He opened the door, looked at us and crossed himself. We looked like ghosts to him. According to the rumors that had reached him, all the Jews in the township had been killed. So how could it be possible that we were knocking on his door?
After he recovered from his shock and fears, we asked him to sell us food for several days in exchange for US Dollars. I also asked him to deliver a letter to the mechanic of our flour mill so that via him we will be able to get some clothes for our survival in the forest. We informed him that we would come the next night to receive the clothes. After this “deal,” we left the farmer’s hut and we walked about 15 km deep into the forest. While walking, we bumped into cut trees in well-organized rows. We decided to make a hiding place in the “Shteibel”, and for that purpose, we took out the wood which was laid inside, and settled ourselves in the empty space. This is how we spent the rest of the day, and then morning and evening behind us, the second day in the forest was already behind us…
When night fell, we turned toward the village. With great caution, we approached the farmer’s house. The fear that he would call the Germans never left us. After we checked the surroundings carefully, and realized that there was no danger, we knocked on his door. The farmer opened the door shaking with fear. He handed us the pack of clothes that the mechanic gave him for me. I divided the pack, half for me and half for Fogelman. Upon our request, the farmer sold us more food, and swore us not to continue to visit him for fear of his family’s welfare. If the Germans or the other farmers were to find out that he was helping the partisans, his fate would be bitter. We understood the farmer’s wish, thanked him and went back to our hiding place in the forest.
Indeed, we imagined and hoped that soon the situation would change – that the Germans will be forced to retreat and we would live. However, reality was different. The Germans advanced from day to day, and camped in various places. We sensed it, although we had no reliable sources. We continued to hide while our supply of food dwindled and we had insufficient clothing against the freezing cold nights. Once we ran out of food, we turned to another farmer asking for his mercy to sell us food in return for our money. This farmer who sold us forest wood in the past knew me very well – he pretended to have mercy on us, and he sold us two loaves of bread and a pack of butter in exchange for gold. We went back to the forest… The next night, we went back to the same farmer and knocked on his door. He opened the door for us, however, I immediately recognized that he did not do it willingly. He refused to sell us food, claiming that he was afraid of the authorities, and that anyway, we would not be able to escape the ring of the Germans. To avoid unnecessary suffering, he suggested that we go back to Iliya and surrender ourselves to the Germans, maybe they would not kill us after all. He emphasized that he did not see any logic in our actions, since a lot of Jews already perished anyway. We hurried to leave the place with a depressing feeling. Deep in our hearts, we feared that maybe we had fallen into a trap. We walked about 10 km farther from the place in the other direction, and we arrived at one of the farmers whom I knew very well. I knocked on his door. He opened it with an astonished and frightened look on his face.
“Are you still alive? It’s impossible. Kajara bragged that he himself killed you with his bare hands.” I answered him that I managed to escape, and I am asking him to sell us food for a full price. The farmer who truly pitied us, provided us with food for a whole week. He warned us to be cautious. The Germans were organizing ambushes at night around the nearby villages to capture partisans. We thanked him deeply and left. It was only by dawn that we reached our hiding place.
Days and weeks have passed. We went into our hiding place only at night. During the day, we were in a forest nearby; so that we would be able to watch what was happening. This was in fact to our favor. Apparently, a shepherd found our hiding place. He saw us leaving it, and he reported it to the Germans. One day, when we left our hiding place, the same way like any other day – leaving early morning and hiding in the near surrounding, all of a sudden, we heard orders in Russian and German to come out of our hiding place – or else, we would be killed. Of course, we did not respond and we started crawling away from the hiding place without the Germans noticing us. Since no answer came, the Germans started attacking the place with grenades and gunshots, and their echoes still reached us. Again we had another day filled with fear in the forest. Despite the fear, the hunger made us go back to the hiding place to find if any food or clothing was left. When we reached the place, we found that our hiding place had been burned and destroyed and our food and clothes have disappeared.
We decided to leave the place and look for a hiding place across the river. In the meantime, the sun came up, and we could not reach another village during daylight. We were forced to continue wondering in the forest shivering, hungry, thirsty and freezing. This time, our hiding place was a bush of wild berries. During midday hours, as women peasants began picking berries, my friend Simcha, started worrying about our fate, saying: “We are lost now.” I tried to encourage him and raised his hopes based on the past. I claimed, “If we were able to overcome dangers so far, we will be able to survive now to.” We continued to lye hiding secretly under the bush. While picking berries, one of the farmers got close to us. She left quickly after noticing us, thinking that she had encountered partisans. I recognized her and called her by her name. I saw that she relaxed and approached us. I told her that our condition was bad and that for a few days we had no food and clothes. She herself suggested that we should come to her at night to obtain food and clothes. That night, we came to her house, and she served us bread, butter and milk, and refused to take anything in return. With her generosity, she herself suggested that from time to time, she would bring supplies to the forest. Two weeks went by that way. We got used to the situation; however, we did not feel comfortable receiving everything from her at no cost. Since she refused to take our money, we bid her farewell and thanked her for her help. We told her about our decision to move to another place. Before we left, she informed us about the war status. From her description, it was understood that there was zero chance for the war to end any time soon, since the Russians were retreating on all fronts, and the Germans were going from strength to strength. The destruction continued and intensified. Whatever they had done only to the Jews, they were now doing to the Polish aristocracy. It was obvious that we had to be extra careful.
We wandered in the forest. We changed our hiding place and arrived at a different location. One night, we were on our way to a Polish person – a small estate owner. We knocked on the door which was opened. When the estate owner saw how disheveled we looked, she gave us clothes and food. From what she said, it turned out that she already knew that I had survived; she expressed her astonishment that I had not come to her earlier. In addition, she suggested that we come to the hay field every evening, and there, we would find food she prepared for us. She warned us about the neighbor’s son who had enlisted to the German police. We did not doubt her goodwill, but we were afraid that we would fall into an ambush, because the dogs barks might indicate that strangers where walking around the place. We decided to quickly leave the place. We thanked our hostess and turned in another direction.
At 2 o’clock at night, we knocked on another farmer’s door and asked him to sell us food. The farmer knew us very well, and although he was frightened, he sold us what we asked for. With that, we had run out of money. We left the farmer’s house to return to the forest. When we were 30 meters away from his house, he ordered us, “stop!” At first, we thought that these were Germans or Ukrainians, and we took flight. A hail of shots was heard, and bullets started whistling around us. Only a few hundred meters separated between us and the forest. However my friend, Simcha, started lagging behind me more and more. When I noticed that, I could not abandon him. I went back in order to be and die with him. Eight people carrying rifles directed straight at us approached us were yelling: “Who are you?” I understood that these were partisans, not Germans. We told them about our whereabouts and about our desire to join the partisans in order to fight the Germans and take revenge.
They did not pay attention to what we said and considered us spies, taking into account the fact that my friend, Simcha, had not run away at all. Simcha’s claims that explained why he had not run away were in vain, because he understood that they were partisans and friends. I, therefore, told them that the local farmers knew us very well, and where able to testify that we were not spies. Moreover, among the partisans in their area, one of the commanders named Kabilkin, knew us very well. In the past, when he escaped German captivity and even before that, I had helped him with money and weapons. I felt that they were beginning to listen to what I was saying. The conversation became less suspicious and less aggressive, until, at the end, we were given an address where we could meet the partisans. They claimed that they were on their way to a combat mission and demanded that we give them our boots. We begged them not to take them from us, since we could not walk barefoot in the forest and without any food. We suggested rich farmers in the area from whom they could take what they wanted, and they accepted our suggestion. However, to be safe, they left guards with us and went to seek the farmers. They came back empty-handed, since the farmers had hid everything fearing that the partisans would ban it all. They took our boots and coats from us promising to bring them back when they come back from combat.
… We were left without clothes and food, depressed and shocked. My friend started claiming that our way has no purpose. “We are lost either way,” he claimed. I responded to that, “There is no room for despair. You, my friend, saw with your own eyes that despite our hardships we have managed to stay alive. Therefore, there is a reason to believe that the sun will soon rise.” Again I insisted that the only way left, was to join the partisans. The war was not going to end soon and we were filled with a desire for revenge. We would fight and take revenge. Maybe we would stay alive, but if our fate is that, it is best that we die as fighters. I spoke to his heart for a very long time until his faith was renewed.
When night came, we crossed the river and reached the village. We headed toward Sonitz farmer’s house. I knocked on his door. When he opened it and saw me he said with undisguised happiness, “You should know, Solomiansky that the partisan’s commander who knows you well is looking for you. He told me that once you helped him and you even suggested to bring young people to the forest and refer them to the partisans.” I learned from him that Chaim Riaar was also among the partisans. When he looked at us, he noticed that we had no shoes or clothes, and that our feet were bleeding. He then immediately went into his house and he called to his wife. ”Get up, come out and see who just arrived.” She came out, glanced at us and started crying. While crying she said: “we will give you all you need, so you can get dressed.”
She brought us pants and fresh clothing. We changed our clothes, we got food and I started feeling like a human being again. At the end, they asked me to come back again. “Tomorrow, the commander will be here and you will be able to speak to him personally about everything”, they said. We went back to the forest with a good feeling. Even Simcha’s mood had improved. We wandered in the forest all day until late that evening. Around 10 o’clock, we turned toward Sonitz’s house. In the silence of the night we heard galloping horsemen approaching in the same direction. We stopped for a while. We feared that these were Ukrainians and not the partisans. A half hour past and complete silence took over around us. We decided to approach the house, and we encountered a farmer guarding his yard to prevent any surprises from the Germans. To my question if there were people in the house, he replied, “The commander with several partisans.” We walked into the house. Kabilkin, the commander, jumped to his feet and shook my hand.” We should drink” Le’Chayim” in honor of your escape. Who is the fellow that came with you?” he asked. I answered that this was my partner in the escape, together, we had escaped from the Germans. The commander looked at him, examined Simcha’s face, and after a long silence said, “I will not be able to accept him to join the partisans. First, we do not have enough weapons. Second, I see that he can hardly walk, more so, he will not be able to fight.” I begged him to accept him; I could not abandon my friend. I asked him to find any kind of job for him. After thinking for a while, he said that out of obligation to reward me for all the help I provided him, he would have Simcha join a caravan of civilians that traveled through the forest across the front lines. He immediately sent an order to do so and I was at ease with his decision. We set down and had a conversation. He asked me how long we had been in the forest, what I thought about the war, and so on.
I told him that in my opinion, whatever happens, the Germans would not win. The war might go on for a long time, but at the end, the Germans would be defeated just like Napoleon had failed. I expressed my opinion that we had to recruit many more partisans to fight the Germans in the hinterland to cut them off from their supplies and to prevent the transfer of supplies to their approaching troops. He was pleased with my explanations and my knowledge. In addition, he told me that soon he would soon let me join in combat. He asked if I was familiar with the way to Hachenchitz, and when I replied, “Yes”, he poured a big cup of Vodka for me and ceremoniously said, “From now on, you should know, that you are devoting your life for the sake of victory, it will be slow in coming, but it will be achieved.” We got up and shook hands, for life and victory.
We continued to sit that night for a long time at the Sonitch farmer’s house. We drank and ate. The commander and his friends burst into singing, but my friend and I were not able to submerge into this worry-free atmosphere. All that we had gone through in the forest, put a barrier between us and them. However, we could not get up and leave. From now on, our destiny and lives were linked with this group.
We then sat and waited for the time we would have to move on. At last, the order was given to get underway.
Saying goodbye to Simcha was hard for me. Together, we had endured obstacles and suffering, together, we had faced death more than once, and now, we had to part, maybe forever. However, knowing that he would be transferred to a safe place and would be able to work, comforted me. In both our hearts be at hope that we would meet again. We fell on each other’s shoulders with a wish, deep in our hearts, that our hopes would come true.
Early in the morning, I arrived with Kabilkin and his friends at the partisans’ headquarters. We began to prepare our future operations. I thought that a few days would pass until we were ready, and I started walking around the surroundings of the headquarters. I wanted to find out if more Jews from Ilia had survived. I found out that Shlomo Koyfman and his wife, the pharmacy owners, my friend Nachman, the barber, and Ben Zion Broyda, the soda manufacturer, had survived, because the Germans still needed them. As far as their fate was concerned, I had no illusion. I knew that when the Germans would no longer need them, they would murder them. I exerted great effort to save my friend Nachman, to bring him to the forest via a messenger that would hand him a note from me. However, he would not even hear of it. He assumed that he was safe, and he asked the farmers to tell me to leave him alone and not to bother him anymore. He stayed in Ilia facing his inevitable fate…
Days and weeks passed. Our brigade organized and trained despite its poor supplies and weapons, it was filled with a desire to fight and take revenge. Therefore, we named it The Avengers.
The Mission in Hachenchitz
It had been very long in coming, when at last the day we had long awaited arrived. The day of revenge in the name of our dear and loved ones. One evening, we were notified that we were going on a combat mission that night. In our unit we organized three platoons, and I was appointed to be a commander of one of the platoons. Our arms were few:only two machine guns a few rifles which weren’t enough for everyone, and a grenade for each one.
When the order was given, all of us hurried to be prepared at the appointed place nearby the intersection at Hachenchitz. After we gathered, alert and ready for battle, Kabilkin, the commander, appeared and explained the headquarters’ goal for the mission, and the way it would be executed. He announced that in a few hours, a German convoy of police and army would pass at this place in order to collect taxes, meat and other supplies. We had to take position quietly and hide well, so that the Germans would not notice that we had organized an ambush. When they would return at daylight, we would surprise them, attack them, and kill the Germans and the policemen. We were ordered not to hurt unarmed citizens that were recruited for forced labor. We would confiscate the weapons and supplies and retreat to base in good order. While explaining the method of the mission, the commander asked for our opinion. I suggested that the platoons should operate at least 100 meters away from each other, so that there would be an opportunity to cover the whole convoy and prevent it from reorganizing. My suggestion was accepted. We settled in this way among the trees in the forest by the road. Tense, alert but disciplined, we lay at the ambush spots and watched how the convoy passed and entered Hachenchitz. We lay and waited.
After a few hours, we were told by hidden observers that the convoy had already left Hachenchitz and was on its way back. The convoy had 38 armed men with the best weapons including the commander of the German police.
In addition, it had many unarmed citizens that were recruited for forced labor. We lay quietly and waited for it to approach our firing zone. Since my platoon was the closest to the road, we were the first to open fire immediately after the agreed whistle sounded. The Germans were confused. They started running in panic and did not know the source of danger.
Our fire intensified. When the Germans saw that they were surrounded, their resistance broke. They started escaping while our bullets caused casualties. This is how we took revenge on these deeply hated people. Sixteen Germans lay dead on the battlefield. The police commander and a few more Germans were taken into captivity. The rest managed to flee. We looted their weapons and equipment and confiscated their enormous supplies. Our happiness was great, since this was our first baptism under fire, and the first organized mission of that scale.
Our happiness was doubled since we did not have any injuries, and”the fat fish” was faced with a fishing rod. The police commander who was captured by us was Ulshuk - Iliya’s and its vicinity’s police commander.
He used to boast that he would never be captured and he would first commit suicide before getting into such a situation. That’s why our revenge against him and his family was even greater. We moved him from village to village, township to township and we spread the rumor among the farmers that Ulshuk had moved to the partisan’s camp out of his own good will. The intention was that when the rumors reached the Germans’s ears, they would kill his family who had taken part in the destruction of the Jews of Iliya and who had benefited from looting their property.
After we had no further use of him, we brought him back to the forest. By law, he would have to take responsibility for the crimes he had committed. He was brought before the partisans’ military tribunal and was sentenced to death. What a frightening and depressing site it was to see him on his knees begging for his life. This traitor, this spiller of innocent blood, who purported to benefit from robbery and looting in serenity, was now standing there begging for his life. His crimes were proven, his verdict determined – death by firing squad. I jumped to my feet and saluted the commander and the tribunal judges. I asked to execute the sentence together with Chaim Riar. Our request was granted. The traitor stood before a firing squad in which we both participated. The order was given. With satisfying vengeance, we shot the bullets of death at him.
Who will wipe the dust off the eyes of our dear loved ones and avenge their blood Thus, from the gathered remnant there arose judges and avengers.
I began a campaign of revenge… this was the first accomplishment on the long road of wandering and suffering. Indeed, the success of the operation in Chatchenchiz encouraged all the members of our brigade. It improved the mood, increased the inventory of supplies and weapons and even improved the people’s nutrition. Our brigade grew bigger and bigger, and Russian prisoners of war and refugees of the Dolhinov Ghetto joined us. We continued training and organizing for new combat operations that would serve as revenge and redemption.
The Raid on Miadel
Day and night… Night and day…. Each day the routine becomes more natural. We have turned into indigent forest people. Our patrols s made connections with the residents of Miadel Township. From them I learned that the Jews of the township were still in the ghetto. I knew that their fate was death if we did not extricate them soon. There was no doubt that they would be destroyed the moment the Germans finished wringing everything possible out of them. I understood that I was given another opportunity for revenge.
I therefore reported to the commander and suggested the idea of a raid on the township. I explained to him that the surroundings of the township were free of partisans, the Germans are confidently sitting there, and it would not even occur to them that we might surprise and attack them. Therefore, we were given the opportunity to act. We will pinpoint the exact location of the ghetto, we will familiarize ourselves with the guard posts and the army encampment. After gathering the necessary information, we will organize, attack and surprise them at night, free the Jews from the ghetto, and capture weapons and supplies. The commander’s response was that he needed to think about it. Military wise, the plan looked good to him, but it might bring non-combatants to the forest, who are surely among the ghetto Jews. He would therefore carefully consider the situation and will decide within two days. I was aware that he wanted to seek advice from the political director of the brigade - the “Politrok” Volostnoy.
Two days later, I found out that it was decided to proceed with the plan and that the necessary preparations were taking place.
During one evening, in fall, the alert was given. The battalion was given an order to proceed toward the shore of the Villia River. In order to reach the site of the raid, it was necessary to cross the river. In the vicinity of the target there were no bridges. The water was deep and very cold. However, our scouts found a place where the water was shallower, so the order was given to undress, put our weapons and clothes on our heads so as not to get them wet. This is how we crossed the river. We quickly dressed and started running for about a kilometer to get warm. We marched through the forest and approached Miadel.
The town, was surrounded by lakes and forests from all sides. At dawn, the lakes were visible from afar.
We rested for a whole day to finish the necessary preparations for the raid. Our scouts took care to obtain a complete detailed description of the place, and they relayed it to our superiors. The brigade was called to the commander, and at 10 o’clock we started our journey toward the destination. The brigade was divided into three units. Two of them were ordered to operate in the township, and the third unit was ordered to take positions close to the township to prevent its reinforcement by the Germans and to secure escape routes. Together with my friend Chaim Raier and another Christian partisan, I approached the brigade commander and volunteered to eliminate the patrol which was situated at the entrance of the township.
We donned civilian clothes, obtained rifles with silencers and departed. We proceeded in single file, I led and the two others followed me, without anybody noticing us. It was already midnight when we approached the guard, he did not notice a thing. When we were in effective range, I shot the guard. The shot was not heard and he fell. I jumped on him. He groaned a stifled moan from pain, and I, with a murderous lust, hit him with the rifle butt with all my strength and killed him. We quickly notified the units that the guard had been eliminated. Then, an order was given to proceed to the township.
One unit under my command turned toward the ghetto while the second turned toward the army camp. Apparently the Germans had noticed a suspicious movement and started shooting. As a result, we were given an order to open fire. Simultaneously, from all directions, the machine guns, rifles, pistols, and hand grenades were used. The two units stormed the German camp and the ghetto. Fear overcame the Germans. Scared like mice they ran in pajamas and jumped into their ready-made shelters. We showered with fire everybody who stood in our way. The unit that was under my command, which was assigned to break into the ghetto, overcame the strong resistance of the Germans guarding it. They expected reinforcement from their headquarters, but instead, they realized that the army camp had been attacked as well and that the soldiers were fleeing in panic. When the first ones fell in the battle, they hurried to flee. We then moved into the ghetto, quickly cut the wire fence, and entered the houses. We ordered the Jews to escape to the forest. Nobody moved… Instead they complained: “What do you want from us? Why do you chase us to the forest so we will die from hunger? Nobody will leave the ghetto! Our lives were secured until you came. We will not go!!”
I was stunned. I could not believe my ears! Didn’t these Jews feel and know what will happen to them at the end? I will never know if this happened because of the German ‘anesthesia machine’ or a false sense of tranquility and security that “this too will pass”. It was the same sense that anesthetized the consciousness of the inevitable end and ordered to wait until it would be too late… Of course I could not accept this. I could not make a fool out of myself in front of the whole brigade. I begged them and warned them of what’s coming to them. “The Germans will not keep you alive”, I said. “If you do not leave the ghetto immediately, your fate will be the same as the fate of the Jews in the other townships”. My warning did not yield fruit. I got angry and said: “we have to quickly evacuate the ghetto and burn its houses. “If you do not leave the ghetto willingly, we will have to burn the houses down on top of you. Get out to the forest, and there, we will discuss how to help you.” Only then, upon hearing these things clearly, the Jews got scared and started running away to the forest. When the houses had emptied out, we set them on fire. In the meantime, reinforcements began flowing to the Germans, who rained a continuous shower of fire upon us. We were then given an order to retreat. In the course of the exchange of fire, several Jews were wounded, among them the dentist’s wife who was not able to continue running. We carried her on our shoulders until we will get a wagon to transfer her to a safe place where we could give her medical aid. We hurried to get away as fast as possible and disappear into the depths of the forest before the German forces ,who kept on coming, could get organized and chase us.
We reached a village, from which we took a wagon, we laid down the wounded doctor’s wife, and we started racing to the base. On the way, three partisans from our brigade met us and expressed their anger that they were returning tired from a combat operation and had to walk while “Jidobkah” is carried on a wagon. Our claim that she was wounded and could not walk, did not help. They forcefully took her down and took the wagon. We, of course, had no choice but to carry her all the way to the base.
This inconsiderate attitude for a wounded woman and its anti-Semitic background made me restless. It was as if a painful slap stung my cheek. I was ashamed and I could not keep quiet about this. Upon arriving at the base, I reported to my commander, told him everything and I demanded that they would be put on trial. He answered me that in the long run, I would confront things harder than this. He is helpless and cannot change anything. “Partisans stay partisans forever. What is there to do?” I doubted the legitimacy of his claims, but I dared not say so. I said that fighters who lack an understanding of the obligation of camaraderie toward their comrades in arms, might one day defect from the battlefield. However the commander did not respond…
Indeed, not much time had passed, and my fears that had been expressed to the commander came true. About a week later, these three known people defected from the camp. We searched them for a long time until we found their hiding place in the forest. To survive, they would raid nearby villages, commit acts of robbery and rape, murder and looting. In the end, they fell into our hands and were brought to a military trial in the forest. The verdict was clear – death by firing squad! Once again, it fell on me to execute the verdict. I saw in this the logic of justice. This was my revenge for their foul deed on our way back from the raid on Miadel.
This incident and its anti-Semitic background, was unfortunately, not the only one. As time passed attacks increased against Jews, their property, their bodies and souls. These things caused me great distress and sorrow. However, I will not jump ahead. I will return to it in due course of events by describing the general background of life in the forest and the war of the partisans in general.
To summarize the raid of the Avenger Brigade on Maidel, one can say that this was a most serious baptism by fire. The operation was noteworthy for its organization and execution. Despite the fact that we came out of the battle as winners, with captured supplies and weapons, without casualties to our fighting forces, this operation exposed our brigade and its headquarters to difficult problems.
As time passed, our manpower steadily grew, but the Miadel raid foisted on us non-combatants, women and children. A question was raised regarding defense, control and supply of logistics for all of them.
Beyond that, we anticipated an attack any day from the Germans, who increased their guard over all points in the area.
Their state of alert meant that we were left with not much space for action in the entire area. I advised the commander to abandon this area and transfer our operations to a different one. This is the time to note that during my service with the brigade, a solid friendship grew between my commander and myself. He would call for me from time to time and consult with me on various matters. Gradually he began to try convince me to join the Communist Party and at times he tried to pressure me (though out of feelings of honest friendship) in this matter. I, of course, tried to dodge in different ways. I told him that at this time I do not see anything more important than to defeat the hated enemy, bring about his downfall and achieve victory. “Now only one thing fulfills my heart: the duty to exact revenge from the enemy. But this I promise: if I remain alive, I will not doubt, and I will join the party.” The brigade commander Kabilkin apparently understood my feelings and did not return to this matter again.
The objective circumstances of fighting in the forest and the Germans’ state of alert, prevented us carrying out any worthwhile mission in the next few weeks. We were in the thick of the forest and we trained, we waited for the Germans to feel safe and think that the partisans’ terror was over. In my conversation with Kabilkin, I expressed my opinion about the possibility to harass the Germans even during the respite. I suggested that we organize small units of sappers to threaten the enemy’s transportation routes, and in particular, to prevent the normal course of the army’s trains and the supplies to the front lines deep in Russia. This idea made sense to him, and indeed in short order we were organized into several such units. I took part in organizing this and I was appointed as the person in charge of one of the units.
In those days, a Jew from Warsaw by the name of Rotblat, a chemical engineer by profession, joined our brigade in the forest. He was a fearless Jew who specialized in assembling mines and preparing explosives. It didn’t take long and we became friends. Ever since then, we were together in every action. Since he had an Aryan appearance and a complete command of Polish, it was easier for us to deepen our ties with the Polish civilian population, through whom we gathered all the necessary information about the course of the trains that carry army, munitions and supplies to the front.
A young Polish teacher served as our main informer. She believed my new friend, Rotblat, whom she liked very much, to be a Christian Pole. There was nothing she wouldn’t trouble herself with to get us the most accurate information possible.
Thus we found out from her that on the Vilna-Molodechno route, a train full of soldiers, weapons, munitions, and other supplies would pass that night. It was therefore very important to prevent its passage. First, we meticulously checked the area of the tracks where the mine would be placed, to increase the German losses as much as possible. At night, the mine was placed with a 100 meter cable attached to it. We lay alert, tensed, and curled up in a moonlight night in the forest, its light spreading over our heads. Thus we lay there for a few hours tracking every movement in silence. From afar came the sound of the train. A moment later we clearly heard the clatter of the engine, and behind the engine appeared a long line of carriages behind it.
“The moment of retribution” I roared, and three pairs of hands simultaneously pulled the cable… it seemed that in a flash, everything around us froze, even our breaths. But then the redeeming rumble arrived. A great and powerful explosion was heard, the earth split and a gigantic avalanche was created, everything was hurled upward, railroad ties and rails were thrown in the air for a distance of hundreds of meters. The locomotive crashed. The carriages overturned and became infernos.… The sky brightened with flames of fireworks… popping sounds echoed… ammunition boxes exploded and burned… screams of the dying and the groans of the wounded were heard, panicked and confused orders were given. How good it was to see the heroes of the “Eran Falk” running in panic to save their lives.
To increase the confusion and pandemonium and to take as many enemy lives as possible, I ordered to open fire. The machine guns, the rifles and the light weapons spewed and spat a continuous shower of fire. A number of hand grenades were thrown in the midst of the human mush that was running about in panic and screaming. Only after the eastern sky began turning red and the dawn began to rise, did we get up and quickly leave the place fearing the arrival of German reinforcements. We realized that our fear was not in vain; an unusual movement began and from all sides German reinforcements flowed toward the shattered train.
With an unbounded sense of satisfaction and happiness, we poured into headquarters. From the radio operator we found out the details of our sabotage: hundreds of Germans were killed, the train was completely shattered, and troves of weapons and ammunition were damaged beyond repair. In a special order of the day, the commander praised me for persistence and the quality of the execution of the ambush. This success was a turning point in our fighting tactics. We began to prepare for additional sabotage operations and new raids. Once again, I had a special moment of satisfaction and happiness befell me. After several desperate but unsuccessful attempts to cross the front lines, we went back to the depth of the forest, to the location of our headquarters and the civilian convoy. Among the civilians, was my partner in escape, Simcha Fogelman. We hugged. A stream of tears choked our throats. We expressed our happiness with the aid of Russian curse that ends with “mother.”
After our first moments of happiness, I told Simcha, that I now hoped that from this point on we will no longer need to part. Deep in my heart, I was convinced that after all the recent operations and thanks to the friendly relations that had developed between us, the commander Kabilkin would no longer object to accepting Simcha in to our brigade. I approached the commander and I took upon myself the responsibility that my friend, Simcha, would be a good, dedicated, brave partisan. This time, the brigade commander accepted my request. Simcha was accepted in to the brigade, and participated in the operations and excelled himself.
All the brigade Jews: Rotblat the engineer, Simcha, Chaim Riar and the others, showed their bravery in the wartime operations of the Avengers brigade, and surpassed the rest of the people in the brigade in their stamina and strength of spirit. This is in contradiction to the libel that came and spread and became common knowledge: that the Jews do not want to fight and that they shy away from any combat operation. More so: we proved that we stick to the mission of revenge and that we are ready for any call and any role that will be imposed on us. Indeed, in our presence, nobody dared to defame or insult us. Nevertheless, the hate speeches against the Jews did not subside, and despite our status in the brigade we felt alone and orphaned. We generally remained one from each family and two from each city. We knew that everything we had, was lost forever. Although the desire for revenge beat in our hearts and we proved courageous, we were unable to disperse the atmosphere of suspicion and hate. Dire peril always accompanied the Jewish partisans. A fighting Jew needed to be doubly cautious; he had to be cautious from the Germans, but also from most of his partisan comrades who conspired against his life. Tens and hundreds of Jewish partisans found their deaths at the hands of their comrades in arms. An atmosphere of lawlessness reigned in relation to the Jews; even most of the officers gave in to the atmosphere of anti-Semitic incitement. The German propaganda constantly declared that the war broke out because of the Jews and that they are at fault in the war. Even if the high ranking officers wanted to, it was not in their power to stop the murderous campaign against the Jews.
During this time, Jews from Vilna and its surroundings escaped and reached the forest. They were better dressed and equipped with light weaponry like pistols. Their goal was to join the partisans and take revenge. Here, in their meeting with the partisans who were located far from their brigade or headquarters, the latter attacked them, took their weapons, stripped them from their clothes and killed them, claiming that they were spies sent by the Germans. This is how hundreds of Jews who succeeded in reaching the forest got shot. However, the Jews who escaped to the forest suffered more than everyone else and were not accepted to the fighting forces.
For them, robbery and looting, murder and rape were daily phenomena. A few partisans would get restless sitting and waiting for orders from headquarters, so they would get drunk and go on missions on their own. They would attack the people of non-fighting convoys, rape women and steal anything that fell in their hands. At times they would attack the surrounding villages, which were usually friendly to the partisans, murdering, looting, and raping. This way, the Polish teacher in the village who served us as a courier, was raped. This poor woman was never the same, never recovered and went out of her mind. However, regarding the hooligans against non-fighting village populations, attempts were made to capture them, and a few were court martialed and punished., On the other hand the murderers of the non-combatant Jews in the forest, went free with no judgment and they continued with their actions. Among the rapists, there were those who were found to be sick with sexually-transmitted diseases which they transmitted the women who were raped. However, this did not deter them from accusing innocent women of responsibility for this. This was the fate of that dentist who, during the Maidal raid, was raped and inflicted with a sexually transmitted disease. The rapists blamed her for this disease. The poor woman was brought to a military tribunal, and faced the death penalty. I exerted great effort until I succeeded in proving that she was innocent and to bring the real guilty people to trial.
Therefore, in these conditions, and in this poisoned atmosphere, the Jewish partisans operated and fought. My friends and I also felt this way; not once did we say to ourselves, that all our efforts are in vain. By the time victory is achieved no Jews will remain, and even our comrades in arms will turn against us. However, the desire to take revenge against the Germans was stronger than anything else. It encouraged us and strengthened our faith that all was not yet lost, and only thanks to this, were we able to continue with our missions. This is how we continued with sabotage operations against the German roads and railways, and we even took part in large raids on a scale greater than unit or platoon.
Our brigades’ missions during winter of 1943 are worthy of special mention. Our raid on the enemy’s army in our operational area subsided. The essential objectives of the enemy in supply and munitions were located near the area of Niman. In mid-January 1943, an order came to the headquarters that the brigade had to quickly organize for a journey in the area of Lida. That day, we gathered the maximum number sleighs and horses that were required for our mission. Snow and frost covered the face of the earth. In the evening, the brigade organized. The order that was given was to cross the railway tracks at the Karasna station on the Villna-Molodechno Road and to proceed toward the specified area.
We also received an order to foil every possible interruption on our way, in order to arrive at our destination as soon as possible. We were supplied more or less adequately. We wore white robes that served as good camouflage in winter. We sat in the sleighs and proceeded toward the railway tracks in Krasna. Upon our arrival, we encountered a powerful German guard and a fierce battle started. The people of our brigade opened up with a shower of rapid fire and that’s how we swept up the German opposition: eight of them were killed on the spot and the rest retreated. This is how we crossed the tracks and continued forward. That night, we reached the township of Horodok. Even though we did not know the size of the German force in the township, we could not avoid a face-to-face encounter with it. We could not bypass the place and we decided to surprise the enemy. We broke into the township. The Germans were terrified and shocked and did not know what had happened. Many of them fell there, the rest fled while leaving behind their weapons and store houses. That’s how weapons, ammunition and expensive supplies fell into our hands. We took as much as possible, the rest we destroyed, blew up and burned.
That night we continued forward and were ready for anything that might happen. Five km away from Horodok we again passed near a German base with a garrison and many police forces. Nevertheless, we were not fired upon, and were able to continue on our way. Perhaps they took us for a German convoy that was supposed to pass by. Perhaps they feared a strong partisan force that operated in the area, and therefore did not initiate any combat. In any event, we advanced that night, and did not encounter additional blockades. This is how we successfully penetrated the thick Nalivoki forest. We continued deep into the forest. There we rested and unloaded the spoils of the nighttime action. We rested for a few days, sent scouts to study the surroundings, who got in touch with partisans from a different battalion that was active in the region, and prepared ourselves for the journey to come.
What followed was predictable. On the way to the forest, we had to reach the Biroza River – a tributary of the Niman. According to the information we had, we found out that the Germans had gathered on the Biroza, with a big supply of wooden rafts for their strategic purposes. Our mission was to prevent that. We reached the place and set up a strong ambush. This was in daylight…a convoy with automatic weapons arrived at the place accompanied by trucks to carry the wood. They encountered our ambush. We opened up showering the Germans with gunfire. They were shocked and horrified. We killed them without abating. Many of them found their deaths on the Biroza Beach. Those who survived escaped hastily on a few trucks.
We blew up the abandoned trucks and retreated without casualties into the forest. These events repeated themselves three days later. This time, the Germans arrived with very strong reinforcements and ready for any combat situation, but again they ran into our ambushes. The fire was deadly. This time too, the Germans retreated, leaving behind them the dead on the battlefield and without being able to load the wood.
After a week, the order came, for the “Avengers” Brigade to organize for a large scale raid on Lida airport in order to thoroughly destroy its facilities. The whole brigade prepared for this great operation. For this purpose, we sent a vanguard force that included eight scouts and I was among them. We departed, and a short distance behind us the whole brigade waited. It was a cloudy, cold winter night, and we advanced quietly. Against the snowy background that covered the ground, we looked like ghosts in our white robes. We got close to Lida Airport which was 3 km from the city. We checked the surroundings well. A short distance from the airport, we noticed a nicely lit house. Alternating sounds of singing and laughing emanated from it – testimony to the confidence of its residents, who did not expect anything unusual and did not suspect a thing. It immediately became clear that there was no guard in the place and that it was possible to act. We notified the brigade that advanced behind us, and approached the house and surrounded it. We stationed some of the partisans next to the windows with automatic weapons and, I, accompanied by three people, knocked on the door. Through one of the windows, we saw two Air Force officers and a few women, who guzzled, swilled, sang, laughed and frolicked, and they were all drunk. After a few minutes when they opened the door, we burst inside. “Hands- up!” I thundered. They were frightened, confused and intoxicated, and raised their hands. I gave orders to take their weapons from them and I told them that they were being taken as prisoners. We notified the brigade via runner, and that same night a matching message was sent to the partisans’ headquarters who immediately flew the imprisoned officers to Moscow. In the meantime, our entire brigade arrived, attacked the airport and destroyed its facilities. Whoever showed resistance was shot and killed. We blew up a few airplanes that were parked on the runways and began preparing to retreat. The sun began to rise, and there was a concern that German reinforcements might arrive any moment. We executed the operation with no losses on our side and returned to our base. A few days after this operation, we were notified that we had to return eastward, toward Iliya. Once again, our brigade prepared for the journey, and we returned to our homeland.
Once again operations and raids resumed. On a foggy, rainy night we set out for a raid on Kaschinevitch village that was in our region. We found out that a German garrison force was entrenched there, in a Polish church.
A squad of sappers approached the church, set explosives and blew it into the air with all the Germans inside. In that operation, my friend, Chaim Raier, was critically wounded. I carried him on my back a long way until we arrived at the aid station for the wounded. There, he was put immediately on an operating table. The surgery was done. They removed the infected bone and inserted a platinum tube that remained protruding. He lay there burning with fever, unconscious, writhing and twitching. He suffered terribly. Being unconscious and lacking nursing care, he removed the tube and caused himself severe bleeding. This is how he died. We buried him in the forest near the village of Malinki.
Weeks and months went by. We got used to the forest and became part of it. This was our life, the life of nomadic partisan. In one of the raids, when we sabotaged the train tracks in Kaschchinevitz, I had a serious accident. While retreating to the base, my leg muscles cramped and I could not take even one more step. I was left lying in the snow. My comrades almost abandoned me to freeze to death and in danger of being captured by the Germans. When I started begging my comrades to shoot and kill me, so that I would not be captured by the Germans, they finally understood that I was not pretending, and they picked me up and helped me reach the aid station. There, a Jewish doctor from Minsk treated me – the same doctor who had performed surgery on my friend, Chaim Raier. Thanks to him, I survived.
The Hunt for Partisans April – May 1944
The raids and sabotage operations by the partisan brigades operating in all sectors and on various fronts – deep in Russia and in areas of Belarus that belonged to Poland before the war against Hitler – greatly disturbed the Germans. The partisan missions slowed their rapid advance during attacks, cut off their rear bases and confused their retreat routes. This situation forced the German command to order the complete destruction of the partisan forces. The order was given and the enemy’s army brought 30 German divisions, Ukrainian brigades and Wolsov’s army (a Russian general who defected with his army and joined the Germans sometime in 1941) that advanced one by one to put our forces under siege. They broke into the forest. We were pressed more and more and the siege tightened around us from day to day. As a result, the partisan battalions united and created a long extended front. Indeed, bad days befell us.
We avoided face-to-face combat as much as possible, however, our camps moved closer and closer to each other and there was no escape from open battle. In the end we engaged in a savage and bloody battle. The enemy got very close to us: using tanks, airplanes and artillery. We, on the other hand, employed antitank weapons. The enemy’s loud-speakers tried to convince us to put our weapons down and surrender; after all, we were surrounded by a steel ring. We answered them with a rain of fire and explosions. This is how a savage and desperate battle began, a bloody battle that lasted - three days. On the first day, we managed to destroy and disarm a few of the enemy’s tanks. However, others came in their place. The German artillery also shelled the forest, the airplanes bombed from the air, and the battle continued…
I and Rotblat the engineer went out as scouts to gather information about the gathering German forces. We rode horses and approached a civilian house near the forest – the residence of one of our couriers. Frightened, she came out to meet us and told us that all the roads are blocked and the German armored battalions, tanks and cannons are flowing through them. We handed her a message in writing for a different courier, however, at that moment, we noticed an armored German column, so we hurried away on our horses and galloped to base. The Germans noticed us and fired their mortars at us. Our situation was bad. We were surrounded. We continued galloping with mortar shells exploding in front of and behind us. Suddenly, Rotblat’s horse slipped, and I felt that they both fell. I got the chills, I yelled after him to quickly flee behind me. He somehow managed to quickly get the horse up and we continued our galloping. In order to disappear from the eyes of our pursuers, we diverted about 10 km toward a big swamp. After barely managing to cross it, we succeeded in arriving at our headquarters, where the brigade commander and the rest of the staff officers and all our close friends thought that we were no longer alive. This notion was based on a message from the brigade’s lookout who saw us surrounded and fleeing from the Germans who were raining mortar shells on us. He was therefore convinced that we were dead and he transmitted that to his supervisors.
In the meantime, the day passed and night came. The firepower that rained down upon us did not cease. We also did not stop firing on the tanks and the columns that we encountered. The very real and close danger united the members of the brigade with all the other battalions. Everybody knew that the most difficult test lay ahead. Tough, bitter battles continued for three days. The Germans’ losses were very heavy, however, they did not spare manpower and equipment, and they threw armored columns and additional forces into the battle … Our losses were not so few, however, we managed for the time being to protect our force. After three days of battle, we were given an order from The Red Army headquarters to leave the front and quickly retreat to the Bresina area. Apparently, The Red Army headquarters planned a full-fledged attack on the Germans, and we assumed that from now on, we would unite with the standing army.
The order that was given to us was executed. Tired and hungry for some hot food, we arrived at Bresina at night. We settled for a rest. However, we had no food to eat. Because of the danger of aerial assault, it was not possible to start a fire and cook any food. It had been three days since we tasted tea, and more so, some hot soup. We settled down to rest on almost empty stomachs. Two, three days have passed, and so far, contact between us and the advancing German columns was severed, but the siege continued. We felt that the encircling ring was tightening around us. From the other side of the front, we received discouraging news. The Red Army frontal attack had not yet arrived, apparently, the plan’s details were discovered by the Germans, and therefore, it was delayed. Before we had time to reorganize for what lay ahead; and before we had sufficiently rested from the battles, an order arrived from Moscow that all the partisan forces must return and proceed westward. Under any conditions and at any cost, we were to break and sever the German front-line to delay their advance toward Moscow. As stated, the main partisan force was near the Bresina, in the Smolensk area. This force was not only to delay the German forces, but also force them to retreat.
The realization that there was no alternative, empowered us. All partisan brigades went to the battle. We had about 40,000 men, who were surrounded inside the German encircling ring that extended over a large area. Bitter and desperate battles took place, with alternating attacks and retreats. We fought on every piece of land, and after a few weeks, after many bloody battles, we managed to break the German front and sever its lines. Our losses were great, and we lost almost half of our force, but not in vain! We returned to the Vileikah-Olkovitch line. Once again, we got closer to the area of Iliya, to the large mass grave of my family, my friends and my city’s people.
At this time, an important event took place on the west Belorussian front that greatly increased the strength of the partisan movement and helped the Red Army’s large flanking attack, which had been at a standstill at the gates of Warsaw for several months. This was the defection of Volsov’s brigades with their commander Radyonov. Colonel Radyonov was General Volsov’s deputy as we mentioned previously, and together with him, he transferred the whole brigade to the Germans. For more than three years, they fought against the Red Army and were very dangerous in their war against the partisans. However, their very great and persistent losses, the inability to defeat the partisans, and the attacks on the Germans, raised doubts among them that brought about thoughts of a new reverse defection. This development did not escape the partisan movement.
The Red Army propaganda started from morning to night on the radio and via air leaflets, to call this battalion to return and fight the enemies of the homeland. It also promised that anybody who switches over to the Red Army, will be forgiven for their past crimes of betrayal. With the surprising development, and to the detriment of the Germans on the different fronts, a very special atmosphere was created for the success of this propaganda. One morning, this battalion rebelled and turned its weapons against its commanders who were loyal to the Germans. General Volsov together with his trustees left his headquarters and ran away. His deputy Radyonov conducted official negotiations with the counsel for the partisan movement headquarters in the presence of the Red Army General staff. The negotiation ended successfully, and in Dokshitz, the battalion joined the partisans. As is customary in these circumstances, the battalion was dismantled and dispersed among different units in the partisan force. This strengthened our forces immensely and we marveled at the effect our strikes had on the enemy’s army. In this way we finally managed to shatter, sever, and break the German front. The breaking of the front by the partisan forces cleared the path for a final general attack by the Red Army that completely collapsed the German resistance during several months. This is how the way to Berlin was opened.
We therefore returned to the forests of our homeland, to my childhood region. These were places that I knew like the back of my hand. After bitter, desperate and tiring battles; after bloodletting and losses on such a great scale, there was a need to re- orient again in the area, to gather information about the Germans movements and to train, in order to reorganize for new operations. Once again, this mission was given to me and Rotblat, the engineer. This time too, we set out riding on our horses, equipped with a submachine gun, pistols and a few hand grenades for each of us. It was midday in summertime, with ripening wheat in the fields, when we arrived at a certain village. Even today, I do not know if the Germans themselves sensed us or one of the traitors told them about our arrival.
Either way, they ambushed us in the midst of the wheat field and apparently they wanted to capture us alive.
Without us knowing about that, we started walking into the village. Silently, the door of one house suddenly opened, the figure of a Polish woman whom I knew very well stood at the entrance, and in Polish she said to us in a whisper, ”Solomiansky, for G-d’s sake, get out of here quickly, 10 meters behind the house the Germans are lying down in ambush to catch you. Run for your lives!” We hurried and ran away. When we had gone as far as 200 meters from the house, we climbed a hill, from which we indeed saw the Germans lying in the wheat field. We quickly took off to the forest, however, we were not able return to the camp without any information. I therefore suggested to my friend, to go to another village. We left the horses and crossed the swampland by foot. We arrived at a farm at the edge of the forest and went in. We asked the farmer about goings on. With rising astonishment, he looked at us and said, “It is unbelievable that you are still alive. The German brigades are bragging that they managed to destroy all the partisans.” We found out from him that the Germans’ force in the area was not large, most of the force got stuck in the Brazina area. We drank water, my friend even suggested that we sit and rest, but I insisted that we should hurry to return to the forest.
Not long after we went into the forest, all of a sudden, in the distance, smoke and fire were seen rising. We did not know what it meant. We found out what it meant after we went 10 km into the forest and toward another village. We turned to a farmer in order to complete our knowledge of the goings on in the area. There, we found out that the Germans went into the farm and told the farmer that they saw partisans coming in, and wanted to know where he hid them. He answered that he does not know if they were partisans, they drank water and took off, and a person cannot refuse water to a thirsty person! The Germans’ rage increased. They locked the farmer and his whole family in the house and put it to fire. The screams of the women and children who were burned alive shocked the whole area. Only then we understood that when we left the farm, the Germans sensed our presence. Despite the toughness that we had acquired through our wanderings, we felt sorry for the death of innocent people that was caused because of us. Our hearts hurt heavily. From a farmer we found out that the Germans in the areas were relatively few. German garrisons remained only in Kornitz and Vileikah, which served as important supply stations to the German Army which already made a pass beyond Brizina. We were now doubly careful, returned to the forest, got back on our horses, and by a different way, went back to headquarters with the information in our hands.
The partisans’ difficult fighting circumstances and our great exhaustion caused a break in our combat missions. From then on, we had a few weeks of peace and inactivity. We renewed our strength, trained and reorganized. I developed plans for a large scale raid on Vileikah and Kurnitz.
In these two places there were supply bases that were important for the Germans. In Kurnitz, there was a flour mill and a big sawmill, and nearby, a train station, store houses and workshops which worked at full capacity. The situation was the same in Vileikah. These two points were protected by a well-functioning garrison armed with the best automatic weaponry and equipment. We prepared the raiding operations thoroughly.
In the late hours of an evening in July 1944, we began – we, the members of the “Avengers” Brigade which turned into a battalion –broke into these two points simultaneously. The Germans in Kurnitz barricaded themselves well in the police station. We took over the township, bombed for a number of hours all the bases and important points from a military point of view. In addition, we set an ambush to prevent reinforcement to Vileikah. The German losses in Kurnitz and Vilekah were great. In Kurnitz, we had no losses, however, the mission in Vileikah cost us three dead and 11 wounded. The bridge over the Villiah River which flows through the township, was well protected by the strong forces of the Germans. There was a bitter, brave and stubborn battle. Despite the losses, the partisans broke into the town, bombed the train station and tracks, the flour mill and the Villiah Bridge. This coordinated attack on both of the townships simultaneously, did its work, first and foremost psychologically. The Germans – members of the garrison - believed that not only the partisans are fighting against them, but that a whole regiment of the Red Army had advanced and reached the place. An escape began, some of them gave themselves up; others were killed. Our forces operated the whole night. At dawn, we organized for a retreat. The Germans started to bring reinforcements from all sides. Our forces retreated in order and according to plan.
A few days later, an order was given to break into our town Iliya and to Obodovtzi farm which was nearby and was used as a strong and fortified German base. I commanded the unit which broke into Iliya. After a battle, the German resistance broke, we took control of the police and Gestapo headquarters, burnt it and we also bombed and burnt the flour mill – my parents’ mill. At first, I entered the mill to save the Polish mechanic, and when he saw me, he fell on my neck and burst out crying. I quickly took him out of the building; we placed explosives and set it on fire. This is how I destroyed my parents’ possessions with my own hands… This time, I did not have an opportunity to withdraw to some corner, be with myself, think and remember the precious remains of my past, from my childhood and my youth in our town.
Once more, we had to retreat. But I came back to Ilyia after a few weeks, when the Vilna area and its surrounding were liberated and cleared of Germans.
The raid on Iliya and Obodovzi frightened the Germans whose losses were great. Since then, the Germans’ followers, from among the farmers in the area, were frightened to move about even in daylight. They started to fear their fate; they saw with their own eyes that the tables had been reversed.
In the meantime, the Red Army troops did what they were assigned to do. They progressed from strength to strength. During a few weeks, Minsk was liberated, the Vilna area was conquered and cleansed. One morning, we were frightened by the announcement that all partisan brigades had to gather in Minsk. From now on, we are soldiers in the Red Army and not partisans anymore.
After a few days – on a nice summer day – we stood, the whole former partisan force, in a parade that took place in the central square in Minsk and listened to the special order of the day that was delivered by the head of the general headquarters, where the partisans’ missions were mentioned. Waves of joy over flooded our hearts, the hearts of the few Jewish partisans that remained. However, deep in our hearts, sadness nibbled and great and harsh bitterness stung. The order of the day touched everybody. It mentioned Russians and the Belarusians, Lithuanians and Poles, Litvak and Tatars… Only we, a few lonely Jews were left anonymous. We fought as Russians, Belarusians and Poles but not as Jews. This is how we stood and walked during the parade, and behind us, streams of blood, and the graves of our dear ones, orphan hood, loss and bereavement. Ahead of us, waves of joy, crowds cheering, and we, this time too, unknown strangers. The victory is our victory, but our joy!
Rays of light from darkness
My testimony is thus finished, however, I feel that I would not be faithful if I do not mention those who love Israel and those who love people- from among the partisans and from the farmers in the area (especially Poles) who helped the Jews and saved them from many real dangers. They extended their help to the non-combatant Jews, and their women and children who were stranded in the depths of the forest. This is the place to mention Capt. Safonov, a Christian Russian, the brigade warehouse clerk– who helped the non-combatant Jews with food and supplies, and not only once, saved them from death by starvation. It is also appropriate to mention the brigade’s politruk, who was appointed later as the brigade commissar. He too greatly helped the civilians and never distinguished between Jew and Christian.
And there’s a story about a Jew, a partisan named of Levin– who was sent to Vilna, to obtain a topographic map of the city and its vicinity, and gather information. This person was a coward and never reached the destination. He came back empty-handed and without the money that had been given to him, saying that the partisans from another battalion had attacked him and robbed him of the money. An extensive and elaborated investigation took place and it was found out that this never happened and that it was all a lie. Nobody robbed him and he actually hid the money. This provided good grounds for peoples’ anti-Semitic feelings. Incitement against the Jews in general started. He was arrested, was brought to military tribunal and sentenced to death. He barely survived the verdict thanks to the intervention of the brigade commissar, Vav. Vav, who appealed to the Army prosecutor and asked that the verdict be changed. He would be given maximum punishment, with the exception of the death penalty. After consideration, the prosecutor agreed and ordered Levin to bomb an enemy train, and if he succeeds, he would be free from his punishment. And indeed, this is what happened.
At the beginning of 1945, I was sent to Iliya to rebuild the flour mill and to operate basic workshops for the Red Army. I stood in the heart of the town and thought, “Iliya my Township! What do you look like? What use are you without your Jews, without all our dear ones who perished in such a cruel way?!” I felt in every fiber of my being that I had to start a new life.
Notes by the daughter of Shraga Solomiansky
When the 2nd World War was over, my father made up his mind that the only place to rebuild his life– was in the land of Israel.
Together with some partisans and other Jews he knew, he had to escape again from Poland and travel through the burnt and destroyed Europe of the wars end. He made his way to Paris to a camp organized by the Jewish Agency. After 6 months of waiting, in 1947, he was sent to Marseille, and was put on a boat named ‘Lanegev’ on the way to Israel.
The ship was intercepted by a British warship and upon arrival on the shores of Israel, all the passengers were declared illegal immigrants by the British, who ruled Israel at that time. Their ship was confiscated and they were all exiled to Cyprus.
After a year in a camp in Cyprus, in May 1948, when the state of Israel was declared, he finally managed to fulfill his dream and arrived in Israel.
My father, Shraga, was drafted in to the new Israeli army (IDF) and fought in the War of Independence
Then slowly he put down roots and established a new family.
He fought again as a soldier in 956 in the Sinai Campaign.
His first born son fell in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
I got married in 1981 and have a husband and three sons.
All of them served, and except for my husband, are still serving on reserve duty in fighting units in the IDF, to protect the safety of the Jews in Israel.
My father passed away on September 28, 1998, on the evening of Yom Kippur.
After visiting my father’s home town, Iliya with my husband and our sons, the memories of my father and his courageous acts were reinforced and strengthened.
May his strength of spirit will always lead us to do the right deeds and fulfill our dreams as Jews and as human beings.
Special thanks to Mira & Ted Mordfin for the translation of my father’s story of survival.