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In Murderous Hands

From: Sefer Vladimirets, 1963

Author: Golda Lichtig-Kozyul

** Webmaster Note: The following translation was generously provided by Diane Moore.  We have presented it here exactly as it was translated for us.  Golda tells of the days of the occupation, how the Poles helped hide and save many Jews, and how even Jews in hiding were able to help the partisans and the underground war effort. 

IN MURDEROUS HANDS

The Russians had already started pulling out of the town, and I went on working at the hospital, as a nurse. Besides me there were other Jews -- Pola who worked as a midwife, and the Jewish doctor Buchko. All the other workers, especially the nurses, came from Russia. Now, in the confusion of evacuation, they were all preparing to leave, and they came to me and begged me to go with them. To tell the truth, I greatly desired to flee, but my father wouldn't let me. It happened the same way with other Jews; they stayed in the town, afraid to leave the place. There were those who fled with the refugees, but after sufferings and misfortunes they returned, since the Germans bombed the escape routes.

The evacuation left our town for weeks without government, and now the Ukrainians showed us what violence they were capable of.

It was the Sabbath, and as usual a gentile woman came to milk the cow, and she whispered to us in secret that the Ukrainians were preparing that night to attack the Jews in the town. She had revealed this secret, she said, only to us, and she begged us not to tell the other Jews. We did not want to believe this could be real. We went, of course, and told many of our friends, although we feared to be seen as sowing fear in the community; however, we quickly realized that the secret was already known to everyone.

Toward evening the Jews closed themselves in, each in his house, and as it grew dark we heard gunshots and breaking glass in the town. Songs of robbers and music of riot B to this rhythm the evil people set out to hunt us. Some among them disguised themselves and weren't recognized, but the great majority did their bloody deeds openly. First they turned to the houses of the well-to-do, those who had angered them in business dealings, and began by plundering. Jews were beaten and girls were raped. Our only protection was to close the shutters and pull down the shades, only peeking through the lattices to the outside.

It was on a Sunday that a number of Germans on motorcycles entered Vladimirets. The first thing they did was to seize Mordecai Dik and cut off his beard. They drove him through the street and treated him brutally. The same day, they appointed a Ukrainian mayor, and a Jewish Council and police.

Months of horror went by and we didn't know what had happened in other communities. In ours, Jews started getting mobilized for forced labor. Women and girls were sent to dig potatoes out of the pits where they had been stored in the winter. The police supervised this work carefully, in case anyone, God forbid, held out a potato or two. Once in this inspection they found a couple of potatoes on Feigele Wachs, and for that she was savagely beaten.

I also worked in the hospital. The head doctor was now Astapenko, who was just a barber-surgeon before, and was considered a quiet Christian and well liked. Now he revealed his real face --one of the worst tormentors. I used to talk to Paula Bas, and we wondered how a man could hide his nature like that.

The situation got worse from day to day. Hunger and fear. From time to time the leaders of the Jewish community would proclaim special prayers and fasts. People pleaded with Heaven and waited for a miracle, but the miracle was not forthcoming. There was now terrible news from other towns, about extermination-actions, but they were not easy to believe. One day two Jews came from the town of Alik, saying that all the Jews there had been massacred, and only they had escaped. "Save yourselves, because your day of destruction is coming; the murderers will deal with Vladimirets Jews along with all the others", they warned us.

With lightning speed the frightful news spread through the town. Everyone knew of the disaster, but still people tried to find consoling explanations.

"It's not possible that they killed the Jews of Alik just like that; probably they didn't behave as they should have." So the convinced optimists argued, but in the end they concluded that it was not by chance that the Jews in that place were wiped out, but it all happened according to a system and a plan.

People were now going around like shadows; everyone knew that our end was near. Many of us sought advice on how to run away and save ourselves. But no wise man was found, who knew how to advise us.

Two weeks before our day of destruction, I was fired from my job at the hospital. At that time I was sent, like others, to Antonovka, to work on the bridge that they had built over the river. From dawn to dark we worked. At noon we got a little soup, a mixture of chaff and water. Whoever got lucky and found a potato in the soup was very happy. The overseers were German. We worked there for eight days.
One evening they told us that the next day we would be taken back to Vladimirets. We were counted and locked into wagons. A feeling of doom overwhelmed us. We knew that this was our last journey. Many of us screamed out the windows. When we came into Vladimirets, they lined us up in rows and led us into the town. I will never forget how my father looked at me and called out, "My daughter, why didn't you run away? They have already dug graves for us. Why did you come back?"

Crying bitterly, I replied, "No, Papa, I couldn't run away. I want to go with you, together."

Heartrending cries were heard from every house. No miracle had come to pass and there was no glimmer of hope. One asked another, "Why? Why are we punished like this?" I see the pictures in my dreams, and it's hard for me to write about it; I still dream about everything that happened to us, and still weep in my dreams. My father went about in those days in his white kittel and wrapped in his tallit. We cried, and our murderers rejoiced. Those were nights of drunkenness and revelry for them.

We already knew that the next day was to be our last. All our family had gathered in our house, we said our farewells, we asked each other's forgiveness for sins we had not committed. In our house were my sister Chava, her husband and their three children, Matele, Devorale, and Friedele, who was a baby only two weeks old. I went over to her cradle. My heart was torn. My sister wrapped her tiny child in a blanket and said to her, crying, "Forgive me, my child, that you haven't even seen the world. It's not my fault."

The older boy was only six. He went to the closet and put on a little shirt over the one he had on, and said, "With more shirts maybe the bullet won't go through me."

How hard it is for me to write these lines. But I want the naive words of our innocent doves to be remembered always. My sister Sheva with her two children -- her son Nathaniel who was murdered, and her daughter Devoraleh, who was saved. My sister-in-law Rachel with her son Mosheleh, and also the Borak family and the Shwartzblatt family, all of them were with us in the house. Their last words were like a vow that what the enemies did to us should never be forgotten, and whoever survived should take revenge on them.
They began driving people our of the houses. Now we came to the place that was called "The Linkes".  [Note: Other accounts talk about being taken to the main square, Linkus Square.] We were surrounded by Ukrainian police. Curious gentiles had come to watch our misery. There were few Germans there, but the power of resistance had been choked out of us.

The murderers now announced that all professional people should stand to one side. By this they implied that the professionals would live, and this was only to confuse us. Pandemonium broke out in the square. Everyone argued to be included among the professionals. The Germans fired shots to restore order. The various police also started shooting. The terror and confusion in the square increased. Many people began running from the place. I started running too, not knowing where, and my sister's daughter ran with me; she is now in Israel. We ran to a potato field, and hid among the bushes there all day. We were about a kilometer away from the mass graves, where they took the Jews afterwards. We heard the cries of our beloved martyrs, and the shots.

We didn't think we would survive. Tomorrow, we thought, our fate of death and annihilation would find us. We lay there all night. Early in the morning we left the field and went into the forest.

On the way, we met a gentile who said to us, "No use hiding, we won't supply you with food. We'll catch you like dogs. If you want, I'll tell you what's already happened to the Jews in Vladimirets."

He told us the dreadful truth: how they had separated the women from the men, how they had stripped everyone naked, and shot them. How they had thrown many children alive in the pits, and torn them to pieces with grenades. "A lot of the Jews," he said, "were buried alive; even now you could see the dirt moving on the graves." With a sort of murderous lust he told us all this.

We were not human beings after hearing these things, only wandering shadows. Like shadows we roamed the woods, and encountered some gentiles, one of them a friend of mine in days past, who took everything we had, clothes and all. That wasn't enough for them, and they ordered us to carry it all into the town for them. I recalled that there were thirty gold rubles hidden in my house. I started pleading with the gentiles, and awakened a little mercy in them. After I told them about the money, they let us go and went away.

Now we realized that there was no rescue for us. We decided that the next day we would go to Vladimirets and turn ourselves in to the Germans. We were frozen, hungry, and despairing. Also with us was Teibl, the daughter of Yosef the swindler, and her baby, who never stopped crying.

My brother Leibl was in the forest too. With the help of a gentile, he had left the ghetto a few days before the annihilation. He had agreed with his wife that she too, with their baby, would come to him in the forest. And there was the voice of the baby crying. Leibl followed the sound. "Perhaps it's my baby," he thought. And thus he came to us.

My sister Sheva's daughter and I went deep in the forest with Leibl and on the way we found Mendel and Golda Burko with their two children, Moshe and Rachel. We discussed what we should do. We were afraid to go to the gentile's house, and we decided to hide in the shrubbery, each in a separate place, so there would be less danger of all of us being captured together. A Polish acquaintance called Malovski was good to us in those days and brought us food from time to time, and news from the town. At night we went to neighboring villages and got potatoes and turnips from the fields. We baked the potatoes in a bonfire.

Early one morning as we were building the fire to cook potatoes, there were shepherds nearby with their flocks, and they smelled smoke and came into the woods looking for us. We all fled and hid ourselves. I didnít have time to get away, and had no choice but to climb into a spreading thickly-leafed tree, and from among the branches I clearly saw the faces of the two murderers. My heart was silent within me; I imagined that this was the end, that very soon they would capture me. I heard their conversation:
"We've lost them," said one. "That's five kilograms of salt gone."

Five kilograms of salt -- that was the reward for a Jew captured in the forest and brought to town. The shepherds moved around very near me; they went on looking and didnít notice me.

Thus we had to distance ourselves from that place. In the evening all of our band gathered again and decided to go deeper into the woods, far from here. The same day, we encountered Charna Pinchuk, and decided to be together. The men went out by night and brought back potatoes; the forest was our home.

Once our Polish benefactor came and told us that the Germans had put out word to all the wanderers in the forest, asking them to come back to the town and promising that no harm would come to them. We were not persuaded to believe them, of course, having been taught by plenty of experience. One day Charna got up and said that she had decided to leave us; she would go to look for her husband who had fled from the gathering place. Her heart told her that he was somewhere in the forest. Our entreaties were useless; she would not change her decision. Her mind was made up, and she answered us: "You have nothing to fear! Even if I'm caught and they torture me to death, I won't hand you over." These were her parting words to us.

Two hours later, the Pole, Malovski, came to us in haste and told us that Charna had been caught and taken to the town. We knew we would have to leave our place at once. Malovski took the trouble to arrange a haystack for us, and there we stayed a while, and then, since our hiding place was known to the gentiles, we left there and looked for another place. We know now that Charna resisted terrible tortures for two days, until she was killed.

Meanwhile winter was coming on; rain and snow made our situation worse. We were afraid that the snow would reveal our tracks, if the Germans came out to look for us. We built a shelter and stayed in the forest; what choice did we have? Shulamit Nisman found us too, with her mother and her sister Hannah.

From time to time I used to go at night to a gentile woman I knew, to bathe, and stay at her house till the first light. The gentile always said to me that I didnít look Jewish and if I were among gentiles they wouldnít recognize me. She urged me to come to her house in the daytime too, to do various jobs, and I did so. I usually worked in a field near the road to town. One day the mayor passed that way, along with several policemen. They saw me working in the field, and didnít recognize me. My heart died in me, and after that I resolved not to work in daylight any more.

Shulamit's mother was ill and died. The forest was very damp and unhealthy. We were obliged to set out from there and look for a new place.

My brother and Leibl and Mendel had some pieces of cloth. A poor woman agreed, for pay, to make a shelter on the roof of her ancient, dilapidated hut. The peasant put straw over the cloth, and we gathered in our new dwelling and organized it with great care. It was forbidden to move around more than necessary, because every movement shook the ceiling. Coughing was also forbidden; any whisper from us was heard below. In the morning the gentile woman brought us potatoes, our food for the whole day. We stayed there a couple of weeks, until police arrived at her house and told her that suspicion had fallen on her, that she was hiding Jews. We heard this conversation from the roof, and were sure that this time we couldnít escape. But the Polish woman had a daughter, clever and very good-hearted. To take the policemen's minds off us, she started filling their ears with compliments and seductive words. Thus the women succeeded in diverting the police to the neighborsí houses. We used the respite this gave us to jump down from the roof and flee to the forest; fortunately for us the hut was near the woods.

We wandered from forest to forest. From a place where we spent our day, we were gone by night. We were ragged, tattered and barefoot; filth and lice devoured us. We came to a wood owned by a Pole named Klibowsky. I knew the man from the days when I worked at the hospital, where he had been a young patient with pneumonia. At that time I cared for him with great devotion. He remembered, and sought now to return my kindness. Many in his village were now ill, and I would go with him to help them B to give injections, set up cupping glasses, and so on. Everyone in the village knew about our group, but none of them dared to hand of over; the situation of the Poles was terrible too, and that made us brothers in trouble.

The Ukrainians were organized now into groups whose aim was to destroy the Poles too -- to kill them and burn their property. This fate befell the village; it was destroyed and burned. In those days we heard rumors that there were partisans in Dobrin and that some Poles from a nearby settlement were preparing to join them. We decided to join their group. We arrived at their settlement, and there we met many Jews, all from the forest. The Polish colonists set up a shelter for them in the settlement, and a system of trenches around it. We were gathered under cover at night in a granary near the forest.

One night, before we had fallen asleep, we heard the shout of "hora" -- the war cry of the Ukrainians. We fled from the granary and ran to the other side of the settlement, to hide in the shelter. In the next few minutes we saw that the granary was on fire. The women gathered in the shelter and the men went out to the trenches. That night several Poles were killed. The attackers destroyed and burned, and we feared for our lives until the dawn.

The Germans objected to the actions of the Ukrainian gangs, and they arrived at the settlement to deal with the situation. At that time we were in the shelter. I happened to go outside and they saw me. Terror seized me, but fortunately it had not occurred to them that there were Jews there. They interrogated the Poles, left them a few weapons, and went away. We immediately gathered our whole group together to decide what to do next. Some of us wanted to stay in the settlement, but my brother Leibl was strongly of the opinion that we should get away at once, because the Ukrainians would attack again, and this we did. And indeed the next night the Ukrainians came back and attacked the settlement again, and any Pole they happened on was murdered.

We decided to abandon this region and go to the parts that were under the control of the partisans. We had to go forty kilometers; we made the journey by daylight, through fields and forests. We even passed close to Vladimirets station in daylight. There we met a gentile woman we knew, and when she saw us she began to cross herself; she seemed to believe that we had risen from the grave.

It was at midnight that we met the first outposts of the partisans. They questioned us and permitted us to come into the forest. The next day we were stunned when we saw who these partisans were. There were many of the police from Vladimirets, who had a hand in the murder of the Jews. But we had no choice.

In there ranks was also a young man from Vladimirets, Pinchas Shlipak, whom they murdered afterwards. He and four gentiles were sent on a mission; the gentiles returned from the operation and Pinchas did not. They said he was killed in the course of the mission, but we knew it was their doing.

We stayed there some weeks, until an attack was organized on us and we left that place and went beyond Pinsk. We heard that there were real partisans there, under Soviet leadership.

The road was hard and long; the journey took about a week, but our situation improved when we got there. We ate our fill of bread and even had something to add to it. Only salt was scarce. We found Jews there from Sarny, Rafalovka, Stepan and Lodova, and even from Warsaw. We stayed in one of the villages, called Dalsak. In the surrounding woods there were large encampments of partisans. We set up bonfires at night, and planes came and dropped parachutists and weapons. We women knitted scarves for the partisans, and thus had our part in the war effort. For a while we were quiet, until the Germans began major attacks on the village and the woods. The villagers abandoned the village during the daylight hours, taking their flocks and coming to the forest. They went to ground in the woods, and so did we.

Thus things continued until March, until that night when we woke in panic to flee from the place, because the retreating Germans were approaching. Outside was open country, the earth frozen and slippery to walk on. The convoy of refugees extended over ten kilometers. We walked only at night; by day we hid in the woods, from the airplanes searching for us and strafing the roads.

Vladimirets and other towns were liberated. The front moved beyond Kovel. We were in Russian territory. For perhaps a week we walked, until we came to Rafalovka.



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