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April 1982, Israel.
By Jehoash Alperovitch
During the last week we heard more and more about the blockade which the British clamped around the Falkland Islands. This issue reminds me of another blockade, which I experienced first hand. To understand what happened, I must explain the background of this story.
After our arrival to the woods (after our escaping from Ghetto Vilejka) we adapted ourselves to the conditions of the new life. It is hard to describe how we could sustain ourselves in such conditions in general, but I want to note one interesting phenomenon, which has a connection with our topic.
A short time after our arrival in the woods my orientation in the forest was incredible. The same was with some of my other friends. Now I often hardly find the way driving in Tel-Aviv, but then, just in the woods, I was able to find the way from one point to the other without apprehension. Can you imagine that we went for ten miles and more looking for food in a certain village, and return "home" in the middle of the night through the forest and came exactly to our base. May be we recognized the trees, the plants, the ground, but in addition to this, we got a special sense, something similar to a sense of an animal, who was born in the woods and lives there. The first Partisans came to our area from the eastern district in beginning of 1942. They began to organize bases to stay, and till the end of the year they already became a serious force. The Germans knew about it, but they didn't realize how serious the situation was. They thought that they were just a little group of criminals. So they decided to "finish" them before they became a serious force. But it was already too late.
The Partisans were already organized in real military units, equipped with serious weapons, and they were ready to fight the Germans. The main forces of the Germans were far to the east, so they collected people from the gestapo, the S.D. the gendarmerie and other small units, which took up position in this area. Together they were several hundred soldiers. The commander of this action was the chief of the gestapo of the city of Vilejka.
The villagers around were ordered by the Germans to come with their horses and sleighs (it was winter) and take the Germans to the Partisan Zone. The Partisans knew exactly every step of their action and were waiting for them and prepared for them an excellent reception. Shortly there was a short battle between the Partisans and the Germans. About 40 Germans were killed and wounded. The chief of the gestapo was wounded in the head, was taken to a hospital in Berlin and returned after several months with only one eye. (That was why I recognized him easily after the war at the court in Bochum).
At this time I was still in the Ghetto and I had the pleasure of participating in repairing the coffins for the dead Germans. After this action the Germans didn't dare to come into the woods for a long time.
Meanwhile the Partisans organized a whole "Partisan Zone". First they attacked the Germans who stayed in some villages of the area, which was close to the "Partisan Zone", they killed many of them and forced the others to escape. The Germans fortified themselves in the main city of the district and a few other points and abandoned all their camps in the "Partisan Zone". The Partisans built a small airport, so Russian small plans landed there and brought weapons and ammunition. They had even their own hospital, a mill and a bakery in the woods. The farmers who lived in the Partisan Zone "paid" taxes to the Partisans (It was grain or other agricultural products). It was a "country within a country". And what was worse for the Germans, the Partisans organized a net of units, which attacked the Germans almost every day. They blew up trains and other military vehicles, killed soldiers and officers. When we arrived to the woods the Partisans were in a process of organizing and all young people made every effort to be accepted in a partisan unit. For me it was a very hard problem. First of all I was too young, and second I was a Jew. It was funny, but even the Partisans (most of the MzAzzz1units) refused to accept Jews. In the summer of 1943 a Jewish unit of Partisans was organized. This unit didn't exist long, but after it was dissolved, other regular partisan units received most of us. I personally was accepted by a unit called "Tshpajevsky Otriad" and stayed there till the end of the accupation of this area.
More than a year passed from the time when the Germans came prior into the woods and we knew that sooner or later they would come again. This time they would bring a big force. They had done it already in the eastern areas. But at this time the German army was busy near Stalingrad, where they just began to feel the true taste of real war.
Their opportunity came later when the German army began to withdraw from the eastern areas and they were nearer to us. Now they had two important reasons to "finish" the Partisans.
First of all the army was already near the partisan Zone. And they had an opportunity to attack the Partisans with a real unit from a regular army. What was more important, the Germans understood very well where the wind blew from, and they could imagine what the Partisans would do to the German soldiers, when the army would withdraw from the positions across the Partisan Zone. Anyway in summer of 1943 the Germans organized a blockade around the whole Partisan Zone in our area.
On the sketch below you can see a part of the Partisan Zone. The Germans occupied only one point, the city of Myadel. The Partisans would later surround this city and not even one German would escape till the Russian army arrived in summer 1944. The circle "P" indicates the center of the partisan forces. About 15 partisan units were concentrated in one brigade called Markov's Brigade (later it was called Voroshilov's Brigade). At this time I was in the Jewish unit. Like others, our unit sent people to explore the area determining where the Germans were located. My friend and I were sent in the direction of Gatovichi road. We went along the road in the direction of the village of Gatovichi, which was near the lake Narotz. Near the point "M" where we were stopped by machine-Gun fire. Every one of us jumped into the woods in a different direction. After a couple of hours everyone arrived separately to the camp "P". Meanwhile other emissaries, who were sent in other directions, returned and the picture of our situation became clear. The Germans surrounded us from three directions. The fourth direction was closed by an impassable swamp, which continued till Narotz Lake. Briefly we were cut off from all sides. We knew that a short time before, the Germans organized a blockade around partisan zones in the eastern area. The Partisans were not organized to lead a frontal fight against a regular army. In such a fight they didn't have any chance. So these units decided to break out of the blockade through the German positions. They concentrated all their forces and attacked the Germans in one point. They broke out of the blockade, but there were many victims among the Partisans and the civilians, who stayed in the partisan zone.
In the meantime German airplanes began to fly over the partisan camps and the artillery opened a fire over the woods. Since we had moved out from the camps the shooting didn't bother us; it was very easy to hide ourselves in the woods. But we knew that in a short time the Germans would come into the woods with their whole force.
Our Brigade chose a solution that was different from that, chosen by the partisan from east. We decided to divide our people into small groups of 5-10 each, to spread ourselves in the woods, especially into the impassable swamp. After this every group would act independently. Our commander decided also to send a part of us, especially those who had families into the woods, to our relatives to help them pass the blockade. At this time the Jewish partisan families were near the camps. Since I was competent in finding my way through the woods I became a guide of about eight people, who included my father and my young brother.
When I returned from Gatovichi road, the evacuation of the people from the camps was in full swing. I knew that my people went to the swamp, so I went to look for them. When I reached the swamp I saw a horse drowning slowly into the swamp. Apparently somebody tried to take things on its back, but it didn't get very far. I had already seen people dying, or getting killed, but I couldn't forget the eyes of the poor horse, which went down little by little into the swamp. When I left the area I still saw the head of the horse.
Anyway I found my people in a terrible situation. They hadn't much food, water or clothing. We moved deeper into the swamp in order to advance as far as possible before nightfall. I supposed we passed over about two miles. We went ahead five more miles the next day, found a relatively dry area and decided to stay there till the end of the blockade. All the time we heard the cannons from the direction of our camps and from time to time airplanes crossed over us, looking for victims. We were sure that the blockade continued. I don't remember how many days we stayed there, I supposed three-four, but our situation got worse. We didn't have any food or water. We drank from the swamp, it was disgusting and many of us were ill from it. In short we decided to try to get out of the blockade. Of course we could sit and wait for the end of the blockade in the swamp, we were sure that the Germans would not dare to come into the swamp. But we could not bear it without food and water and we didn't know how long the blockade would last. Our plan was very "simple", cross the swamp and during one night try to cross Gatovichi road. We knew the forest, which lay over Gatovichi road very well. We wanted to reach point "C". There was a house in the forest and we knew the man who lived there. He was a friend, and we were sure that there we would find food, water and clothes.
But we had two "little" problems: First to get over the swamps to the road, and second, we were not sure that it would be possible to cross the road. Anyway we began our "voyage". It is impossible to describe how we advanced. There were small trees, like shrubs, which had some roots, and we jumped carefully from one tree to the other. The soil was like a mattress with springs and it cradled our feet. It was a miracle that none of our group sank down into the swamp. From time to time somebody shouted for help, when he fell into the swamp up to his waist. To pull out a person from the swamp was a very complicated operation, and we did it several times a day. We also found a partial solution against our hunger. In this area there was a lot of cranberries and they became our main food during our "voyage". We advanced very slowly, maybe 1-2 miles a day (at night we rested).
My trouble started when the people became anxious about whether we were moving in the right direction. They were sure that they already passed 20 miles, much more than the distance to the road. "Who decided to take a child for a guide" - they said. They were sure that they had no chance of getting out of the swamp. The fact was that we advanced more and more slowly because we were exhausted and hungry.
Somebody even suggested "killing the child, who will bring the death of the whole group". But that wasn't a serious suggestion, because they knew very well that nobody but I had any chance to lead the group out of the swamp.
After two or three days (I don't remember exactly) I told the people that we were about 2-3 miles from the road. I was sure more than ever that we were near it. The reason was that we passed forest-glades with piles of hay. I knew that in these places the villagers used to chop grass during summer, leaving it there till winter. When the soil froze they came with sleighs and took it home. I was sure that this must be near the road, because the villagers wouldn't go far away deep in the swamp. I saw many such piles going many times along Gatovichi road. Our people didn't believe me even then, and I was very sorry about it.
As the people were tired and exhausted, I suggested that the group remain on a relative "dry island" which we found, while I and another young boy would try to get to the road. When we will find the road we will return to the group and take them. The tired people liked this idea and agreed to wait. That afternoon we left the group and got to the road in 3-4 hours. We lay down near the road and could see German cars passing along the road. We returned in the middle of the night and told the people what we saw. Now the people began to believe that we did go in the right direction. We decided that during the next day we'd reach the road, and at night try to cross it. We got within 200 feet from the road, and lay there until night. We watched the Germans, collecting the villagers. They took them to work to Germany. Their only "crime" was that they lived near to the Partisan Zone. During this time we learned how often and when the German patrols passed along the road. It became clear that the Germans didn't keep big forces here. Certainly because they were sure that nobody could come out from this swamp. We waited till one of the patrols passed along the road and quickly went across it. Now we knew very well the way to achive our goal. We were out of the blockade! The blockade continued on for one more week.
Most of the Jews passed the blockade sitting in the swamp. They remained alive, but they suffered hunger for a very long time. We already had food and clothes. We prepared a tent and stayed there until the blockade was over.
In conclusion, several sentences about the results of the blockade. During the blockade the Germans burned down most of the villages which belonged to the Partisan Zone. They took many of the people to Germany to work there. This made some difficulties for the missions of the Partisans. But there were also many villagers who escaped to the surrounding forest and returned after the blockade to their villages. The Germans didn't kill many Partisans, only a few, and after the blockade all units were complete again as before the blockade.
All the fears of the Germans, regarding to the Partisans, came true. Before the Germans withdrew from the occupied territories in Belarus, the Partisans blew up the railways and bridges for hundreds of miles. Escaping from the Russian Army, many of the Germans were killed, or were taken prisoner by the Partisans. During about a month, our unit, as did many others, took part in " purification" of the area from Germans. When they were gone I joined the Red Army, and took part in chasing the Germans out from the very last part of Russia that they still held. Then we chased them out of Poland and finally pursued them to Berlin. But this is already another story.