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In the Vostok Territory

By Abraham Aharon, son of Naftali Alperovich 

We arrived at the big Pushtza ( deep in the forest hiding place) and continued our traditional living arrangement form our shtetl. Once again, we were neighbors of Zadok and Rushka Shavetz and their two daughters, Sonka and Perla. The members of my family who survived the slaughter in Kurenets and managed to escape to the forest, were my sisters, Raicha, Relka, and I.

Now, we lived in huts, deep in the forest, and the Shavetz’s hut was right next to ours. During the night, we would go together to the villages at the far edge of the forest to beg for food. One night, we reached the village Villeivitz. We passed through there and we were able to receive bread, vegetables, and a little bit of salt. Some of the residents told us that a son of one of the villagers works for the German police, so we had to be extremely careful from now on when we come for food. It was already after midnight when we finally decided to return with the food to the Pushtza. It was during autumn, so it was already very cold and that night there was a rain storm. we were still extremely tired from the long walk to get to this village. So after a short walk Zadok suggested that we find a bath house in the village and spend the rest of the night there and return to the forest during the early morning hours.

Zadok volunteered to look for a bath house to sleep in and we set in hiding to wait for him. We sat just outside the village, waited and waited, and Zadok did not return. An hour passed, two, three hours. We sat there through the cold night with the wind blowing upon us. We sat as if we were sitting on burning coals. We said to each other, "What happened to Zadok? Could he be caught by someone?"

I was feeling particularly guilty. Why did I let him go alone? I suggested that we should go and see what had happened to him. We returned to the village. This village was extremely long. The first villager we saw, we asked, but he said he knew nothing. Dawn came and we knew that it would be very dangerous for us to stay there so we quickly left for the Pushtza without Zadok or any information about his fate. When we got to the Pushtza, we met with some partisans who had just returned and we told them what had happened. To our great surprise, they knew all about it and the head of the partisans informed us that Zadok was wounded by his partisans by mistake. A bullet hit his calf and the partisans put him on a horse and took him to the village of Asneivitz near Neyaka.

There they carried him to one of the villagers door and informed the villager that they brought a wounded Jew. They ordered the villager to hide him in his barn and warned him that if he gave him away to the Germans, his house would be burned and he would be murdered. They promised the villager that they would come to take Zadok the next day and bring him back to the forest, and once again warned him that he should tell no one, not even his own wife, about the wounded Jew.

At eleven at night, some guys from Neyaka and I went to Asneivitz to fetch Zadok. The villager took us to his barn and there laid Zadok, his leg covered with blood, but his wound was bandaged So we carried him all the way to the forest. On the way to the hideout, he asked us to go to his wife Rushka and his girls and let them know that he is fine. He was in extreme pain, but he was very brave. We took him to one of the huts and the Jewish doctor Zrinski who lived there took care of his wound.

This occurrence happened while the Jews of the big Pushtza were planning to go to the Vostok. Rushka knew that they now had no chance to be among the people who would go to the Vostok and that she and her family would have to stay at the big Pushtza. She cried for days, during that point of time, we all saw the Vostok as a haven from the brutal life in the forest, here in the forest we were hiding from the Germans and their collaborators, we had been living in little huts exposed to the elements, while winter was approaching. The Vostok we were told, was controlled by the Russian partisans. People prepared for the departure for days, both emotionally and physically. The partisans gave each group a few guides and the Jews stated preparing bread, toast, salt, shoes, and especially lapses(type of Shoes the farmers wore). The ones that could afford the lapses prepared two or three pairs for the very long walk. There was a Jewish shoe maker from Kribitz, he was sitting in his hut in the forest all day preparing shoes.

I was among the very first group to depart the Pushtza. With us, there were fifty-four people, most of whom were from Kurenets. Some were also from Molodetchna. The Shochet from Kribitz, the Rogovin family from Vileyka. We had a guide, a partisan with a rifle. We came to say good-bye to our dear neighbors, Zadok, and the girls. That proved to be very emotional parting.

Among the people from Kurenets who I remember going with us, were Michail Gurfenkail, Yoshka and his sister Feiga Alperovich, the children of Mendel, Hilka, son of Netta Zimmermann and his wife Freidl., Reuven- Zishka and his wife Marka and their children, Motik and Abraham, Shimon, son of Zishka Alperovitch, Yenta and her sister Rachael Dinerstien, Archick, son of Gutza Dinerstien, Chetskel Zimmerman, (later changed his name to Charles Gelman), my sisters Raicha and Relka, and myself.

During the days of the Soviets, 1939-1941, I was a teacher in the little town of Kriesk that was located between Ilya and Dolhinov, I was very familiar with the area that we were going to go through, so I took upon myself the mission to guide our group. When we crossed the train tracks near Neyaka, all of a sudden, we saw five rifles pointing at us. They pointed but did not shoot. It turned out to be the partisans. I asked them how they knew not to shoot. They said that our language saved us. "We heard that you were speaking Yiddish and by now we can clearly tell Yiddish from German."

There were five partisans. They were waiting for the German train to come by, so they could plant explosives. They said that when they were done with their job, they would meet us in the forest near Sosenka and help us. We passed the way peacefully and reached the forest by Sosenka and I must confess my "crime". During a few minutes that the group took for rest, my two sisters and I fell asleep. When we woke up, we saw that everyone had left. It was around three in the morning. I was supposed to be the guide! We quickly ran and somehow found the rest of the group in the dark.

Light came and we sat in the forest to wait for the partisans. Around three in the afternoon, only two of them arrived. They told us that during the mission, the three others were killed. When nighttime came, we crossed the river Viliya in the most shallow area that we could find and reached the village Zabalota. This was one of the villages where I used to teach. I knocked on the door of my old landlord and he received me very graciously. This area, was clear of German at that point. The Germans were patrolling only in specific central locations near the train tracks but in the village itself, there were no Germans. I walked across the village, remembering the days when I would be greeted as a very respected person. They’d harness their horses for me and treated me like I was an important personality. And now, I crossed the village secretly and in fear.

My landlord agreed to come with me to greet the rest of the people in my group and he told all of us that at that moment, there were no Germans in the area, but that we should be very careful and watch our steps. He told us a horrible story of what happened a few days prior. Seventy Jewish people, escapees from the town Mydell, walked across one of the villages in the area and had stolen two lambs from a farm. The Christian villages reported the incident to the Germans who were patrolling the nearby area and during a time when the group was resting in the forest, the German police surrounded them and killed almost everyone. Only a few had managed to escape. He once again warned us that we must go only at night time and very quietly at that.

We were dressed very poorly and if these days were like the regular old days, it would have been very funny. But at this moment, we were surrounded by a world of horror and tragedy and humor was hard to come by. Still, there was one person who received his fate with good spirits, at least outwardly. This was Michail Gorfenkel. He had a towel tied around his head and another towel tied to his waist. He carried a small bag for putting the goods he begged for into, but he was always in good spirits. His good spirit helped not only him, but the rest of us. I remember him saying was, "One thing that I wish for myself right now, is for someone to take a picture of what I look like at this moment. After the day of victory, if I survive, I will enlarge it and put it in my bedroom, across from my bed." But Michael did not get either wishes. He never got a photograph and he did not survive.

I also remember Artzik Gutze’s Dinerstien. He had a huge fur coat that he never separated from. When we were walking through the forest, we felt very sorry for him. He kept tripping over his coat. But we were very jealous during the cold nights. After many, many troubles and wandering, we passed the old Russian-Polish border, the border prior to 1939. We passed near Pleshentznitz, about 10km from Poloshnitz. A few days later, the first snow fell. We didn’t dare go to the local homes. We slept in the forest. The weather was very cold and only one person had the appropriate clothes: Archick, the owner of the fur coat.

I still remember the suffering of the children of Zishka and Rogovin. During the night, we would go to the villages. I always chose Michael as my partner. I would leave my sisters in the forest. The area we arrived at was almost all at the hands of the partisans and villagers were very scared of them. Michael would tie a stick to his shoulder and in the dark, the villagers thought he was a true partisan. This was not the only tactic that Michael used to get food. He used to sing songs to the villagers. He would sing the song, "Katyusha" or "Yasili Zvatra Vyana" so the "rifle" would scare them at night and the songs would soften them and even get them excited, so they would usually give us good items. I liked Michael a lot. Even in the darkest hours, he was in good spirits. And in songs and jokes, he could overcome the difficulties and spread joy to his surroundings. Sometimes we would even forget our troubles.

One night, when we crossed a village, Michael told me, "You know, Abraham, I am really getting tired of eating only bread. Let’s go catch us a chicken and prepare us some chicken soup." So we went to a chicken coop and tried to get a chicken. As it turned, there were more geese then chickens in the coop, and in the dark, we caught a goose and he started making very loud noises and woke the entire village. Michael had no choice but to let go of the goose and run. We both ran for our lives. When we reached the forest, Michael said, "I could never imagine that a chicken and a goose could live in the same room. During this war, all order and life rules had changed. But I would never give up and one day I will bring back a chicken to the forest, although I really crave a goose at the moment , but geese don’t know the rules of danger and can bring disaster."

Two weeks passed since we left to get to the Vostok. We reached the partisan area near Oshuetz. Matrina and Gomel near Polochek. Here, we were much freer. The Germans were headquartered in Polochek and Matrina and the rest of the area was free of them so our situation improved tremendously. We slept in the houses of the villagers, staying here for three weeks. Then we decided to continue toward the Vostok, going east eventually we planned, to cross the front and reach the USSR area passed the fighting. Our guide was the partisan Vanya. The road was almost impossible. The snow was very unstable and our lapsas, the shoes we wore, were extremely wet. So every night and day when we were resting, we would spend hours trying to dry our lapses and our shoes. We would try to dry them next to bonfires and using the fireplaces of the homes of the villagers. The villagers here treated us very nicely. Some of them even gave us their beds and they slept on top of the furnaces. They would repair our shoes and warm their bath houses so we could wash ourselves.

In the village, Voloki, I once walked with Michael in an area that turned to be a river that froze. The frozen layer broke and we fell in the water. Lucky for us, it wasn’t too deep and we managed to get out. Michael said, "This world is very confusing. Everyone goes to the river during the summer and we are swimming in the winter, as if we are professional sportsmen! I never imagined that I would turn into such a sportsman!"

Finally, we reached the frontline. We met the local partisans and they told us that it was almost hopeless to try to go through the front. There were some groups of Jews that succeeded in passing, but in the meantime the Germans had found out about it and started putting blockades, and every trial might be defeated. They told us that a few days before, a big group of Jews tried to pass the border and everyone was murdered. So they suggested that we should return to the partisan area from where we came, and the young people would join the partisans, and the older people would find work at the farms. We were very disappointed. Was it really worth it to go through all this trouble to get here? We remembered the Pushtza near Kurenets and we felt bad that we left. So we returned to the Ashuatz area. When the Christians there saw us coming back, they started complaining. "Our blood is spreading all over and you are sitting with nothing to do!"

They totally ignored the fact that most of the blood was the blood of the Jews in this war, and without weapons, we were not able to be accepted as partisans. Just about that time, a Christian man came to us and told us that near Polochek, there is a big barrack that used to hold weapons and the Germans burned it but some of the weapons were still there. If we were to repair them, we would be able to use them. He told us that if we paid him, he would take us to the place. We started arguing. Some of us believed him and some of us thought he was lying. The ones who believed him went there and brought the weapons. They started repairing them and everyone was very busy. Just for that, we must bless those weapons.

One villager who knew about weapons looked at the rifles and said to me, "You know what you can do with such a rifle? You can watch rabbits, but only rabbits that are locked in cages. That’s what you can guard with these!"

But truly, after repairing the weapons, there were some rifles that were able to shoot. But when we came to the partisans and tried to join the troops, they found our rifles lacking and we looked lacking as well, in their eyes. Still, some of us were accepted. One of them was Motik, the son of Moshe Alperovitz. He was young and very likeable. In a short time, he became a real partisan. Our group was divided and we spread into different villages and started looking for jobs.

In the village, Papovichzina, near Gomel, lived my sisters Raicha and Relka. Hilka and Freidl Zimmerman, The Shochet, from Kribitz, Tuvia from Mydell, with his daughter. In the village Mirakova, lived Reuven- Zishka with his wife Marka and his young son, Abraham. The women were sewing dresses and knitting sweaters for the villagers. In exchange, they got bread. The young men of the villages, were fighting with the partisans, so many of the farms needed workers. So Michael, Chetskel Zimmerman, and I, started working as tree cutters for families whose men were serving with the partisans. We worked from early morning until night and in exchange, we got food.

Michael would check the homes, and, according to the shape of a home, would guess where we would expect to find good food and a decent amount of it. One day, he chose a beautiful, large home. He said, "Here, there must be wealthy people."

After a hard day of labor, we received only potatoes. When the homeowner saw how disappointed we were, she "gave" us a saying: "You cannot judge a book by its cover." She suggested to go to one of the small homes and there she said, they would probably give us bread. Michael went to one of the homes she suggested and returned with a huge loaf of bread that consisted of eighty percent potatoes and the rest, wheat. This was a great feast. Once in awhile, we would mow the fields. Chetskel (Charles Gelman) was a very good looking young man, with easygoing spirit. During the days of the Holocaust, he would say, "You know, everything that we are going through will surely impact our personalities. So much, I would like to see our people after the war. What kind of lessons are we to learn from our experiences? Could it be that people will forget those hard days and continue to go with the flow as they did in the past?"

This was around the spring of 1943.The Russians started winning some battles. Among the Jews in the area there were also some changes. Many of us were accepted by the partisans. Even the issue of weapons was not so important any more. Shimon son of Zishka Alperovich, Artzik son of Gutza Dinerstien, Yoshka (yosef)and his sister, Feiga children of Gitel and Mendel Alperovich, were accepted by the Malinko brigade. I was accepted by the Voroshilov brigade. Chetskel (Charles Gelman) was accepted to the Zelazniak brigade. Motik son of Reuven -Zishka Alperovich continued with the Vorovsky brigade.

At one time, when I was getting ready for a mission with my brigade, we met with another brigade and one of the people there was the very young Zalman (Zalmanka the brother of Rivka) from Kurenets, the son of Moshe Alperovich. I was excited to see him and suggested that he would transfer to our brigade so we can be together. The officer of his brigade said that there was no way he could let go of Zalmanka. He was a young man, not even seventeen, and he was very well liked both by the soldiers and the officers of his brigade. His commitment was limitless. His officer said, "You will meet him after the war."

When we reached the village Vyozana near Polochek, there was a big battle between our two brigades and the Germans. This was in the afternoon and we were surrounded by German tanks. I was together with Zalmanka. He kept trying to run in front of the tanks and it was very difficult to stop him. I told him, "Don’t be a hero. Stop yourself. What sense does it make to do this?"

In that battle, Moshka Shulman from Molodetchna was killed. We were very upset. He was the very first person to be killed from our troop….

…Many days and months passed and we reached the month of May, 1944. We came to the town of Viyanitz, about thirty kilometers from Globoki. This town was part of the Soviet territory before 1939 (Kurenets was part of Poland at that time). The population of the town was purely Jewish. Now we found it empty. There was not one Jew left. In the homes, we found torn Talits, Tfilins and pages of Torahs and prayer books. Gentiles came to the town and used the Torah books to replace the broken glass in the windows. We went to the Jewish cemetery and we found it intact. All the graves had Hebrew writing on them. The gentile partisans, friends from our troop, would bring me names and pages from the prayer books and ask, "What is written here?"

In this town, I experienced my first revenge. Two years before, after the Germans murdered all the Jews, there was one Jewish woman left. She was very light and she looked like a Christian. But one of the villagers that lived in the surrounding area told the Germans that she was Jewish and they killed her. Syomka Perlman, the son of this woman, was now an officer with the partisans. He came to look for his mother and when he found out what had happened, he vowed to revenge the blood of his mother. We found the house of the Christian villager and entered but only found his wife and the children at home. Syomka broke everything in sight and then waited for the man of the house to enter. When the man entered, Syomka told him, "You made a grave mistake. You made a bitter mistake. You were very sure that no one was left of our family, and now, look at me! I am still alive and now I can tell you exactly who the woman was that you gave away to the Germans. She was my mother. Look at me! I am the son of the woman that you murdered!" He took the man to a bridge near the river and there, he killed him.

At this town, we were prepared to celebrate May 1. The victories of the Soviets in the battlefields were huge. In our hearts, we believed that we would survive. But all of a sudden, instead of a big celebration, we got an order to retreat. Those were the days where Vilna was already in the hands of the Red Army, and so was Kovna. Only the Vittebesek front was still in German hands, and that included our area. The Germans started retreating from our area, but on their retreat, they decided to purify the area from partisans so the retreat would be easier. They put all of their force into this battle. They brought the army from the front, from Smorgon and Vileyka, full divisions came. This area had about sixteen partisan brigades, about forty-thousand people. The Germans surrounded the entire area and each day, they tightened the circle around us, reaching for the center. For the first time, we felt a true battle. We, the partisans, were fighting an army. And not only did we feel the battle from the German side, even our partisan friends were bothering us, since they were afraid that if they fell into German hands together with Jews, they would suffer greatly. I was the head of the transport unit. We passed through the villages where the Jews from Kurenets were hiding. I tried to help them. I tried looking for my sisters, but couldn’t find anyone. Everyone had left the villages, along with the inhabitants that were following the partisan troops. There was no organization or plan. The only person I found was Archick Dinnerstien.

The Germans blockaded us in three rings. The rings were concentric and it was impossible to escape. The first ring consisted of Belarussian and Ukrainian soldiers. The second was Polish and Latvian soldiers. The third was German. Thousands of partisans were killed. It was a hopeless war. The partisans started drowning the heavy weapons into lakes and rivers, and we were left with only automatic rifles. All the villages were burned by the Germans. In areas where the residents didn’t have enough time to leave, the Germans burnt them, along with their homes. The night sky was red with flames and fires. It was the red of horrors, an inferno. During the daytime, there was so much smoke and confusion of people, livestock and the sound of planes dropping bombs and explosives, that the air was permeating with fear. From the planes, Germans also dropped pamphlets which said, "You are fighting for the Jews and not for Russia. Kill the Jews! Put your weapon down and nothing bad will happen to you!"

The fear among the partisans was great. The rings grew tighter and tighter. Near the village, Mattriyene that’s next to Assouaz, I met with Shimon son of Zushka Alperovich from Kurenets, the pharmacist from rodetchkovich, and his wife. The pharmacist told me that he had poison pills and suggested that the three of us kill ourselves. I said that I would consider it and later I was told that they did poisoned themselves.

The battle lasted the whole day. We kept running from one area to another, looking for a way to break through the line, but to no avail. One of the places was around Lapeil. We were trying to cross the German lines. Here, I met with Motik, the son of Reuven- Zishka Alperovich. Here, we had a horrible battle with the Germans. A grenade blew off his legs. He was beloved by everyone. We wanted to carry him away, but he begged us, "Leave me here. Don’t take me. I am lost already." After throwing the grenades on the approaching Germans, he took the last grenade he had and used it to kill himself.

We regrouped to troops that would run in front and I was among them. I knew that this was our only choice. It was during the night and from afar, we could see the shadows of the Germans warming next to bonfires. They let the first ten-thousand people pass, only to trick them and as soon as they were in the center, they would open fire from the front and the back. The battle continued the whole night. The Germans and the partisans were mixed. We could see the Germans with the police in their black uniforms. We knew we lost this fight. We were certain about it. The officers started destroying their IDs. We were waiting for our death to come. Then, a Russian captain came to us and said, "Friends, there is only one choice. We must attack them. Most will be killed, but some will be saved." This was around nine in the morning.

We jumped up to their bunkers. Many, many were killed. A few were saved and I was amongst them. I returned to Kriesk. Here, I met Yankel, the son of Archick Alperovich from Kurenets. He was well-known among the partisans. Very courageous and renowned everywhere. He told me that in the big Pushtza, there were blockades and many of the Jews were killed. Yankel came riding a horse, one of the villagers rent his horse and for that, we got two chickens, bread, milk, and a meal. We decided to return to the Pushtza of the Kurenitzers. We managed to get to Bogdanova, the little town between Kurenets and Retske. Here, we had to cross the train tracks and we were not able to do so. The Germans opened fire and we had to return to Kriesk. From there, I left Yankel. He stayed with the partisans, and I continued east to look for my sisters, but could find no Jews. A gentile friend of mine told me that they were all killed by a German during an ambush near the village, Matriyana.

Just about the same time near Asouatz, we heard the sounds of the approaching Soviet front. Soviet airplanes passed by us and bombed Molodetchna. Around three in the afternoon, we were blessed to see the entering of the first Russian tanks. A few days later, I had a most memorable meeting in Asouatz: while I was standing in the street, I saw an image approaching me. I was scared and started retreating back. The person approaching me was covered in bandages from head to toe. On her back, she had a sac and she was carrying a stick in her hand. She said to me, "Why are you running away? Don’t you recognize me? Don’t you recognize Feiga, the daughter of Mendel son of Yechezkel Alperovich?"

My eyes filled with tears. It was now that I could see the horrors that we had experienced. She told me what had happened to her and her brother Yosef. She was badly wounded and her brother was killed during the blocade. She was lying among the dead bodies. At one she got up and asked a German Guard to let her look for her son who was killed and she now wants to die next to him. The German let her go to look. Meanwhile, she escaped and entered the forest and hid there for many days, alone and wounded, eating grass and other plants. One day, a Christian woman came to the forest and found her. She told her that the Red Army conquered the area and that she now could get out of the woods.

At first, she didn’t believe her. But finally, she left the woods and lay on the road. A Jewish officer from the Red Army found her and when he realized that she was a Jew, he stayed with her and took care of her. He took her to Asouatz and there, the Jewish doctor Zirinsky, from Kurenets, took care of her. Later, she was sent faraway to Gorki to a hospital and there she was able to recover.

In that area, I also met with Chetskel Zimmerman (Charles Gelman). He had gone through the same horrors as I did. The partisans gave me a month of leave and I went to Kurenets. I wanted to go to my family’s tomb. But when I got to Kurenets, I realized that I couldn’t handle it emotionally. After a short time, I moved to Kribitz, where I got a job working for the government.

One day, I got a letter from the Soviet government. This letter was in gratitude for the heroic deeds of Zalman Alperovich, son of Moshe. The letter was sent to me because they thought that since my last name was Alperovich, I must be a relative. The letter bestowed honor upon the young Zalman Alperovich, who originally was not accepted in the Army because of his young age. He volunteered nonetheless, to revenge the enemy of the people. He died in East Germany as a hero of the Soviet nation. After his death, he received two medals of high honor. The letter ended, saying that his behavior and his courage is an example to the other soldiers of the Red Army. I read the letter many times and my eyes filled with tears. The letters were jumping from the page. I remember what his officer had said to me: "You will meet after the war." And here the war has ended, and only in his death, I meet with his memory..