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At the end of June 1944, the Vitebsk front had been breached and the Red Army began advancing rapidly westwards. Although we were far away from the front, the echoes of the heavy artillery attack reached us too. As the German army retreated, we were ordered to curtail the retreating German soldiers. The danger was not yet over and we happened to find ourselves in the midst of fire exchanges from all sides, but we survived that too, and eventually met with the Red Army. The joy was great. I lack words to describe the extent of joy and relief that my comrades and I felt on that day. Who would ever thought that we would live to see this?
When the Vitebsk front had been breached, I wondered to myself, what an enormous power the Soviets need for beating and defeating the Germans. Indeed, the Soviet army fought with unusual courage and determination. I remember a chat that I held with one of the Soviet soldiers, a young man of 18, who offered me American made canned meat. I remember myself asking him "and what about bread?". You see, it is impossible to bring bread from afar, and it must be baked on the spot. His answer was: "we have bread more than enough, since we get bread for a whole company and a half of the company is killed, so we have their bread too". When I heard this, I understood the strength of the Soviet army and the potential that is latent in the Russian people. This made me remember the reasons for Napoleon's defeat in Russia, in 1812, when the Russians burned down Moscow, with their own hands, and thus saved Russia from a French conquest. Years later, at the time of the "cold war" between East and West, I used to remember that chat I held with the Russian soldier. The truth is that not only was I impressed by the might of the Russian force, but I also feared it.
The American aid to the Russian army was very significant. At that time, the Americans transferred to Russia, via Persia, supplies of food and equipment, among these, they supplied "Studebaker" military trucks.
A while before their withdrawal from Lithuania, in the summer of 1942, the Germans managed to transfer about 10,000 of Kovna and Shaulai Jews, to concentration camps. Together with the retreating Germans, many local collaborators left for Germany. During the first years after liberation, the Soviet authorities located many of the Lithuanian collaborators that stayed in the area, among them were quite a few Jew murderers.
Only he, who saw the might of the German army, when it advanced and entered Lithuania in 1941, could enjoy the sight of the retreating German army,
The Russian continued their gallop westwards, but we, partisans, have not yet completed our job. We were given the task of keeping and treating the German captives.
Being one who knows the German language, I was assigned to serve as interpreter in the military headquarters, close to where our regiment was stationed. In one of the cases, I had to translate an inquiry of a German captive, a young armored force soldier, a man of about 18. He showed us all the documents that he had with him, among these were photos of his parents and family. I felt strange when I looked at these family pictures, and during the entire inquiry, I couldn't help thinking of my own family. I, too, had family pictures that I took from home and preserved with me during the entire war. The Soviet officer interrogated and I translated.
I did not feel any sense of revenge. I must admit that my senses were fossilized. I did not hit him, as was then customary, I just did a verbal translation. But, I absolutely let him understand that I am Jewish. My account with the Germans will never be settled, but at this situation, I considered myself as a combatant soldier. My fighting together with the partisans, altered my feeling, and it was odd that here was a great difference between my feeling as a combatant soldier and my feeling as an avenging Jew. The moment I had a weapon in my hands, the inferiority and revenge senses were far away from me. This is the place to point out that there is an enormous difference between those who were in camps and ghettos and those who succeeded to escape, join the partisans and become combatants. I never hit a German soldier in captivity.
I remember that one of the German soldiers had a dumdum bullet stuck in his leg and his entire thigh was shredded. I did not feel any sense of revenge. Generally, it is hard for me to see blood, and as partisan, I always fired from a distance. Probably there is a difference between fighting from afar, when you don't see the person on whom you are firing, and killing face-to-face.
One day, a group of German captives has been handed to our regiment. Again, as speaker of German, I had to gather all the captives and deliver the instructions to them. I gathered all of them, about 150 persons, and delivered a speech in German to them. Among other things I said: "your safety is secured, but now you will have to work", as the German proverb states: "work makes life sweet". On those days I had no idea about Auschwitz and other death camps, neither did I know the slogan that the Germans posted on the gates of Auschwitz-Birknau "Arbeit Macht Frei" - "work liberates".
On the eastern front, there were also Italian units, seemingly not big ones. Among the captives, there was a soldier of Yugoslav origin, who wore an Italian army uniform. I took his jacket from him and it served me till after the liberation.
It is important to point out that in the war on the liberation of Vilna, there was a group of Polish partisans, who tried to integrate with the Russian forces, but the Russian army did not want to cooperate with this group. As of the first days, before they found the time for taking care of the Lithuanian collaborators with the Nazis, the Soviet authorities began arresting Polish underground activists. The Soviets did not want an impression that the Polish participated in the liberation of Vilna. This repeated itself in Warsaw, where the Polish rebels, who were connected with the Polish government in exile, in London, were prevented from participating in the liberation of the capitol city. During all the time of the Polish rebellion in Warsaw, the Soviets stood aloof on the east bank of the river Visla and did not assist the Polish. Only after the Germans oppressed the Polish rebellion, the Soviets opened their offensive attack and liberated Warsaw.
After the entire area was liberated from German forces, all the partisan regiments arrived in Minsk, capitol city of Belarus, where a big victory parade was held. Our regiment stayed in the forest near Vileika, to search for Germans who hid there. Our status was odd, we no longer were partisans, but neither were we a part of the army, and there was nobody that should take care of us, supply us with food. Money I didn't have. During my time with the partisans, I did not need money, and would I have money, there was nothing that I could do with it.
When we were in the forests, we used to haircut one another, but when I was released and needed a haircut, I had no money to pay for it. I went to a local barber and, in return for cutting my hair, I let him fire one bullet from the riffle that I still had with me.
After a while, our regiment was dispersed, some to the army and some to security services in the area. The war continued, but I had enough. I decided to be released. At release, I was given a certificate that during the war years I have been with the partisans. This was a very important document, since on those days, many were suspected of helping and collaborating with the Germans.
A short while after the liberation of Lithuania, on the second half of 1944, the soviet authorities made enormous efforts to find sites of mass murder, of war captives and civilians, and made an attempt to determine the circumstances of the murder and the numbers of the victims and their identification. In some of the sites, memorial statues with Russian and/or Lithuanian inscriptions were set up, and the victims were mentioned as Soviet citizens, without any relation to their nationality. Memorial sites in Hebrew were added only after the fall of the USSR.
The thoughts about my home and family did not let go. Of course, my heart told me that I couldn't expect any good; I also feared the confrontation with the facts that I am to find out. Still, I yearned to arrive in David-Horodok, to see what is going on at home. But there was no possibility for going south. All roads were demolished and the railroads were only in the east-west direction, and vice-versa. Civil traffic to the south was completely silenced.
As mentioned earlier, I had two sisters in Eretz Isroel, and my conscience tortured me for the many months that I did not let them know that I am alive. I feared that they will say to me: "you're alive, and where are all the rest, where is the entire family?"
The joy of liberation vaporized very quickly, when I found myself as a lone stranger without my family. Incidentally, I met an acquaintance that I had known in the ghetto, a civil engineer. He, too, fought together with the partisans, during the war period, and after liberation, he found a job in a construction company that was managed by a Jew, one of his commanders in the partisan regiments. He told me that I could easily find a job, because my profession is needed. Indeed, I was sent to Vileika to organize and manage the district food industry. (Later, when I immigrated in Eretz Isroel, in 1946, I continued to specialize in this field, first with a laboratory and oil company and, when the State of Israel was established, with the government civil service).
The town of Vileika was stricken in the war and it was empty of Jews. But, anti-Semitism didn't lessen, on the contrary - it strengthened. I searched for a place to stay, but being a Jew there was no chance that the locals will rent me a flat. Until I found a corner where I could sleep, I slept on the desk in the office where I worked. Only after I introduced myself as Polish, one of the local women agreed to rent me a sofa in her house. It became evident to me that, during the Nazi occupation period, not only were Jews exterminated, but the Nazis also poisoned with ant-Semitic propaganda, the local population, which even before, didn't specially sympathize Jews, to put it in an understatement. This resulted in a situation that even those who succeeded in surviving hell, had nowhere to return to.
In course of the war, we believed that if we are rescued from the inferno and are privileged to live, the world will change and will be liberal and better. And alas, we learnt that reality had changed, but to the worse. I found myself in a new reality in which the Jew is more than just not wanted; he is, practically, unbearable. Many among the local population feared that the survivors will return, and they will be forced to give back the Jewish property that they looted during the war. Indeed, very many surviving Jews did not present themselves as Jews and preferred to conceal their origin.
The Soviet establishment was very suspicious towards holocaust survivors. Everyone was suspected of collaborating with the Germans. A routine question that survivors were asked was: "how did you survive?" in paraphrase we used to say: "why didn't the Cholera take you?" I, personally, did not feel this, since I had my partisan certificate with me, but the general atmosphere towards survivors was of suspicion and hostility, and it was obvious to me, that here is not the place where I will be able to start a new life. I did not want and could not hide my being Jewish. The Russian custom is to state your private name together with your father's name; and my father's name was Yehudah. As Litman son of Yehuda, it was obvious that I am Jewish. There was no doubt in my mind that we didn't reach the end of the road, and of course not the safe haven.
During my stay in Vileika, I heard nothing from my family, and after a few months of work, the need to travel home began, again, burning in me. My working place granted me the privilege not to be mobilized for military service, as I was needed for the civic-war effort and I got a release for economic reasons.
Because of my work, I visited the area for organizing the food industry, which was then at its first steps. I had a chance to visit places in which we were active during the partisan period. The things that give pleasure to a human are relative. For example, I derived a lot of satisfaction from my being allowed to travel in daylight on the roads, even if it was in a cart. When the Germans ruled, main roads were off limits for us, and it never occurred to me that I would ever be able to travel on these roads openly, in daylight. Vilna had been liberated on July 13, 1944. I wanted to reach Vilna and meet my friends from the movement and underground. Many of my friends at the F.P.O, who managed to exit the ghetto, through the sewage system, and arrive at the Rudniki forest, near Vilna, and organized in a partisan regiment, within the Lithuanian brigade. As far as the attitude towards Jews, their situation was far better than ours in Naroch. They participated in the liberation of Vilna, and, immediately afterwards, begun to get organized in a nucleus of the Zionist movement, secretly of course, with the aim of advancing toward the Land of Israel.
In November, I got leave from work and traveled to Vilna, hoping that from there I will be able to reach home. In Vilna, I met the friends of F.P.O, who survived and returned to the city. I met there Nissan Reznik, my friend at the "Zionist Youth" and the underground. In 1944, Reznik and other activists of the youth movements, Abba Kovner, Ruzka Korchak and more, begun organizing the escape from Vilna to Poland and Rumania, with the aim of advancing towards the coasts of Eretz Isroel.
By the end of 1944, Ruzka managed to immigrate in Eretz Isroel via Rumania, with the help of activists from Eretz Isroel, who were at that time in Europe, and mainly men from the Jewish Brigade, within the British army. When I was in Vilna, I decided to first replace my job and work in Vilna, together with all the rest.
But before anything else, I felt that I must travel home, to see what is going on there. I heard rumors that there are no Jews in the Pollese area, but I felt a strong mental need to see what happened to my family.
|The Author, after release from the partisans, Vilna1944||Markov, commander of the Woroshilov Brigade.|
Picture taken in 2003, at the museum in Minsk.
I left home in October 1939, and in October 1944, five years later, I returned.
Before the war, at normal times, when I returned home from Vilna, I would take a train that travels south, and travel up to the Looninyetz station. The Looninyetz railroad station was a large train crossroad, from which lines branched in all directions - south, north, east, and west. In Looninyetz I would take the train that travels south up to a town named Lachva, about 338 kilometers from Vilna. The distance between Lachva and my hometown David-Horodok was 23 kilometers, I used to travel on a carriage harnessed to a horse, whose owner I knew, and he knew my family.
I took to the road from Vilna, without having any idea at all of how would I get home. I still say "home". Regular transportation southward was totally unavailable. On the track from west to east, only cargo trains were running. The Soviets, who arrived in Germany on those days, dismantled everything that can be dismantled and transferred it on cargo trains to Russia. That included whole factories with all the their equipment.
From Vilna, the trains traveled south on a totally irregular basis, these were mainly cargo trains that carried coal from the coalmines in south Poland to Leningrad.
I boarded a cargo train in Vilna and traveled to Baranovitche, where I changed a train and arrived in Looninyetz. For a partisan like me, who is used to walking tens of kilometers at nights, traveling on cargo trains was a luxurious treat. In my pocket, there was the Soviet authorities' certificate that I fought as partisan in the war, which, at that time, was the most respectable "business card", and bestowed a certain sense of security.
In Looninyetz I boarded a cargo train, that traveled to the USSR, and passed by Lachva. But, when we arrived in Lachva, I realized, to my astonishment, that the train doesn't stop there but proceeds eastwards. In no way did I want to reach the Russian border. Therefore, at the first station where the train had stopped, I went off and took there a train that travels backwards to the west. I hoped that this train will stop and that I will be able to get off, but in vain. In a few hours later, I found myself back in Looninyetz. I was determined to reach home, no matter what, and I climbed on the first train that traveled eastwards with a decision in my heart to jump off when it will pass Lachva again. Usually trains slow down when they pass through a station, even though they don't stop there. Indeed, I boarded the train, and when it arrived in Lachva, I jumped off. The evening was beginning to fall and the station seemed quite deserted. There was no living soul around. I felt as an alien who came from another planet. I learned that there is no transportation to David-Horodok and I will have to walk.
I started walking to the center of town, a distance of about 3 kilometers. When I arrived it was already night, and luckily I found in Lachva a Jewish family (regrettably I forgot their name), that invited me to stay overnight in their house. At that time, all survivors were like one family. I told them that I am on my way to my hometown David-Horodok. "You don't have to go there, no one had been saved", they told me. Then they told me, that all my hometown Jews were murdered by Christians of David-Horodok. They also tried to convince me that I should not go there because this is a real threat on my life. It appears that when the Germans retreated, they destroyed the road and planted mines along it. Also, the bridge that the Germans built on the Pripet river, when they entered, they destroyed when they left. They also told me that the area is filled with various partisan regiments - there were the Banderavitz, nationalist Ukraine partisans, who fought both against the Germans and against the Soviets. There were Ukrainians who collaborated with the Germans against the Soviets.
They advised my to give up my plan, and told me that some of my hometown people have already passed through Lachva, among them Asher Baruchin, who later immigrated in Eretz Isroel, and he gave up and did not go to my hometown. But I just couldn't give up; I felt that I must get to David-Horodok. I had supper, and in spite of their pleas, I decided to go there tomorrow, no matter what.
When I restore in my mind the events of those days, I cannot understand how could I have acted in the way I did. Everything I did on those two days was against logic. I must have acted by impulse. Feelings took over me and I, who normally considers things with a clear mind, did everything against logic reasoning.
On my way to David-Horodok, I met a Russian young man who carried a Tommy-Gun (automatic riffle), and was on his way to one of the nearby villages. He had told me that he, too, fought together with the partisans and that he had been sent now to be a gymnastic teacher in the village Villemitz. With him and with his Tommy-Gun, I felt a bit safer.
I later learned that we were walking on a mined road and that we were very lucky, because it appears that the mines were aimed against vehicles and carriages and not against men. After a few hours walk we reached the river Pripet. The bridge on the river was hit in the war and we were forced to board a ferry that was capable of carrying up to three carriages. Two kilometers before the town, we crossed the village Horsk. On the village main road, we met an elder gentile woman, who, when seeing me made the sign of cross on herself and started screaming: "here, this is Moravchick's son". I don't know how did she identify me, maybe because I resembled my mother, or maybe because she remembered me from our cloths store, where I worked during my vacations from school. She offered us a light meal, and we continued on our way.
My vocabulary is too poor to describe what I have gone through on that day. It has been quite some time since the conviction that no one was left from my family had intruded my mind. And, practically, why did I return? Why did others return?, is it not that many lost their lives when they returned to their homes and villages, after they were miraculously rescued from the German murderousness. I returned because I had to do so, I felt that I must see with my own eyes what happened, and how did the incredible happen. Also, in spite of all the rumors, there was still a spark of hope that, maybe after all, someone was saved, maybe someone escaped and was lucky, as I was lucky, stayed alive and returned to look for me. Maybe... Maybe...
Gravestone in Ponar 2003
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