Children of Dolhinov: Our Ancestors and Ourselves » Chapter 7-General Timchuk and the Long March East
“General” Timchuk and the Long March East
“We believe that the army assembled beneath our walls is capable of great things but we also think it is time that it did them.” The people of Metz to the besieged French army there, 1871.
On June 21, 1943, Heinrich Himmler, head of the German SS, ordered the destruction of all remaining ghettos. About 800,000 people, one-quarter of them children, were killed. By September 25 Gauleiter Kurt von Gottberg informed Berlin there were no more Jews in Belarus. That was true for the towns and cities but the genocide, though overwhelmingly complete, was not quite total.
Strange are the ways of fate and accidental are the makings of history. In 1940, Avraham Friedman, a tall, handsome young Jew from Dolhinov took the opportunity to work at a fox farm near Molodechno. He did a good job and came to the notice of the farm’s director. As a result, there are about 1,000 people walking the earth today because of that simple fact who otherwise wouldn’t be.
The director’s name is Ivan Timchuk, a decent man despite being a Soviet official and Communist. He will be the single most important outsider in the history of the Dolhinov Jews.
“He was a Communist Party member but he was a very good person,” so spoke Esfira Dimenshtein, one of the survivors from Dolhinov who took shelter with the partisans and survived due Timchuk’s efforts, said of him.
That reflects the ambiguity of almost all Polish Jews. They had no illusions about the Communists or USSR, they knew that all ethnic Poles and many Byelorussians loathed the Soviets, and they knew that Stalin’s men had behaved toward Poland and all of its peoples so brutally as to merit such hatred.
And they also understood well that there were corrupt Communists and antisemitic Communists and bureaucratic martinets of Communists and sadistic Communists. And then there were the idealistic Communists. Timchuk was one of those, and there were all too few of them.
But they also knew that only Moscow’s forces could save them. And that’s why, in mid-1942, Jews in eastern Poland were singing:
“Alas, how bitter are the times,
But deliverance is on its way;
It’s not so far away.
The Red Army will come to free us,
It’s not so far away.”
Indeed, elements of the Red Army were only an hour’s walk from Dolhinov if you knew where to look for them, still alive by then to seek them out, and able to dodge the Germans along the way.
There’s no easy explanation for why Timchuk behaved differently than almost all of the thousands of other Soviet officers in a position to save Jews during World War Two. Certainly, he got along well with the Belarus Jews who he worked with before the war, though this does not answer the question of why he would want to be friendly with Jews, at least traditional ones, when his campatriots weren’t. No doubt, too, he knew Jews from his childhood in the Ukraine. But so did hundreds of thousands of their neighbors who, at worst, collaborated with the Nazis; on average, did nothing; and at best, merely felt bad about the mass murder they saw around them.
Who is this man who simultaneously became the savior of Dolhinov’s remnants, one of World War Two’s greatest guerrilla commanders, and faithful servant of a tyrannical regime?
Born on February 1, 1901, in the village of Grushka in the Czarist Ukraine to an ethnic Ukrainian family, Timchuk is the eldest of eight children. His father, Matvey Timchuk, a machinist, works at a distillery on the Tudorivk estate. They family was a poor one, even aside from the need to feed ten mouths. When he is 13, Ivan goes to work as a laborer on the estate. And at 16 years of age, he leaves home to become a field hand working for wealthy farmers.
Here, then, is a child laborer who, at an earlier time, would spend his whole life at hard work and little reward, with no chance of peraonal advancement. He’s precisely the kind of person who sees the revolution as path to a new life and Communism as his religion guiding the way.
And so when the civil war begins, Ivan eagerly joins the Red Army. Soldiering is something he’s good at. By 1919, only 18 years old, he already leads the reconnaissance unit in the 37th Regiment of General Samar’s Seventh Cavalry Division. Wounded several times, he is rewarded after the war by being sent to the Smolensk military-political academy and, in 1924, being allowed to jin the Communist party. Ivan sees the army as his profession, but it is not to be—or at least his military career is interrupted. By 1926, troubled by the lasting effects of his wounds, he has to resign.
How can the worker’s state use such an eager, energetic, and dedicated young man? The former fieldhand in rags now received a free university education, graduating in 1929 with a degree in economics. He is assigned to the Bolshevik state farm in Minsk, the city of destiny for him. Ten years later, in September 1939, when the Soviets seize eastern Poland, he is entrusted with a mission of special trust: he is sent to newly annexed western Belarus s near Molodechno, to become head of an enterprise breeding foxes for their fur. The Servitch farm is near a little town of no great significance. Its name is Dolhinov.
This is a prize job and his selection shows the comrades must have thought highly of him. “An assignment where we need the best possible person, extremely honest and efficient,” they must have said. Indeed, it’s the kind of job that can take one right to the top of the ruling elite or to a secret police headquarters’ basement for a bullet in the head. A man even slightly corrupt or lazy or incompetent will not bring in the expected profit. The temptation to steal a few pelts for sale on the black market must have been overwhelming. Stalin and his henchmen aren’t merciful, If even one subordinate does it, the head of the enterprise is the head that will roll. Talk about a job like being a fox in a henhouse! But Timchuk does well and the enterprise prospers.
During the 1930s, anyone living in the USSR, and especially a party member, must do dirty things to survive. Praising Stalin to all excess was the least of it. Did he denounce colleagues or friends to the secret police, sending them to concentration camps and firing squads? Or did he merely slander those already arrested, expressing indignant contempt for comrade so-and-so who turned out to be a counterrevolutionary Trotskyist SOB?
Was he an enthusiastic Communist who really believed in the ideology, a survivor, or an opportunist? The evidence points to the former explanation but didn’t seeing too much from the inside make Timchuk cynical? There’s no evidence of that in Timchuk’s case, though he knew how the system worked. Perhaps he thought all the abuses were merely temporary, potholes on the way to true communism.
At any rate, the Communist system took him from peasant lad to the highest positions with the greatest of privileges, from a hut’s mud floor to a richly carpeted office. In between, would be the forest floor, as Timchuk became a partisan commander in World War Two, the man who would save the remnant of Dolhinov Jews purely because he wanted to do so.
Now 40 years old, Timchuk’s career seems untroubled by the terrible purges gutting the party and terrorizing its cadre. On June 22, 1941, he is due to go to a meeting in Minsk. The German army intervenes. Three days later, they arrive at his farm. Everything is in confusion, with the Red Army in headlong retreat. Soviet units, foolishly told to hold their ground by a depressed and disoriented Stalin, are surrounded and taken prisoner. Mounting his horse, he barely escapes to Kholopenichi where the party has called an emergency gathering of 30 reliable men assigned to underground work. He draws Minsk, headquarters of the German army and occupation authority. Without hesitation, while most of his colleagues are fleeing to safety in the east, he heads into the lion’s mouth.
His assignment: to organize an underground and commence sabotage. But from the beginning, Timchuk adds another task: to save Jews, whenever possible. With its large working class, the city had been a center of red power even in Czarist times. It was in Minsk that the first meeting of what became the Bolshevik party took place in 1898. In sharp contrast to Poland, Jewish workers had flocked to the party as the best hope to slay the monarchy which oppressed them and as promised harbringer of a new utopia. When the 1917 revolution broke out, Minsk was one of the first cities seized by local Communist forces. Unlike Dolhinov, Minsk had become part of the USSR and the Communist party had already been in power there for twenty years.
And so Minsk had a strong party apparatus many of whose most dedicated members were Jews. To build an anti-Nazi network, Timchuk had to protect his Jewish activists, most of whom had been already forced into the ghetto. He had to do so under the nose of the most ruthless and total dictatorship of modern times which watched the Jews there with special care. But the Communist party itself had decades of experience organizing an underground and then serving the second-most ruthless and total dictatorship of modern times. Anyone who’d survived Stalin’s purges possessed a closed-mouth caution that would prove useful in their new task.
At Chernyshesckogo Street 11, Timchuk set up headquarters and was quickly contacted by the underground Communist group already organized in the ghetto. So now, aside from direct anti-German activities, Timchuk had to organize food supplies into the ghetto and escapes out of it. In the countryside, Communist activists urged farmers to donate bread and vegetables which could be smuggled through the barbed wire. How did they do it? The ghetto wasn’t guarded by German soldiers but by locally recruited Byelorussian police. And they readily took bribes. A dozen apartments around the ghetto were set up as safe houses for storing food until the right moment for getting it through.
Many now-forgotten people fought for the anti-Nazi cause and gave their all. Like the Emelyanyuks, Ivan Stepanovich and his wife, people in their 60s. As a veteran forest worker, he knew the countryside around Minsk and peasants well. They visited villages and collected food, telling people of the terrible conditions in the ghetto, until he was caught and executed by the Germans in 1942.
And there was Kazhdan, whose first name Timchuk couldn’t remember, a party member and tanner in a leather factory. Along with daughters Maria and Lena, his job was to help people escape the ghetto and to get supplies for the partisans starting to organize in the countryside. One day, he arrived at a clothing factory with forged documents to pick up coats that would be diverted to the partisans. A suspicious policeman seized him, and both he and his daughter Lena were killed. Maria escaped to join the partisans.
Some underground tasks were mundane but no less important for being so. In the ghetto, Jews sewed socks, gloves, and warm hats during the winter of 1941 to clothe the future fighters. Responsible for the enterprise was Motuseich Pael, a civil engineer. One of the tasks assigned Jews by the German army was work at the Minsk railroad station. Nearby was a dump of captured Red Army weapons. As Jews passed the poorly guarded heaps of guns, they tried to pick up a rifle, ammunition, or gun parts which could be assembled later. Pael passed them to farmers coming into Minsk market their crops. They brought them to the countryside, hidden under straw in their wagons.
Timchuk’s quartermaster in Minsk was Yakov Shimanovich, a Jewish factory worker. As a Jew, he should have hidden or fled to the countryside. Instead, he stayed in place for two years equipped with false documents. Dozens of people must have known his true identity but never betrayed him. One of his jobs was to obtain medicine and medical supplies from doctors, another was to obtain printing presses, paper, ink, and type.
By August 1941, Timchuk was printing leaflets and newspapers on equipment hidden in villages. Leaflets travelled from hand to eager hand calling for struggle against the Germans and promising ultimate victory. Once a comrade from Biyalystok, 250 miles away, visited Timchuk and said to him, “I’ll show you something interesting. Look how far Soviet planes have been able to fly to drop leaflets!”And he handed Timchuk one of those pages printed near Minsk which had traveled so far and through so many people to reach such a distance without ever having been intercepted by the enemy.
A quiet and modest young man named Samuel Isaakovich Shapiro was the technical genius who made that propaganda effort possible.Shapiro had studied chemistry for two years at the university before the war began. He had promised Timchuk: “Give me one or two milk-cows and I’ll organize everything you need for printing.” Shapiro made caseine from the milk which, when combined with glycerine, produced a mimeograph-sytle process for mass-production printing under the forest trees.
Once the Soviet underground began organizing the first partisan units, south of Minsk under the command of Nikolai Pokrovsky, Jews could be helped to escape there. During the first round, 120 people were brought out of the ghetto in groups of five or six. They were led to safe houses in near-by villages like Ostroshitsa, where a man named Shavel, in his sixties, was the host. He worked in the medical clinic and was loved by the peasants who he healed presumably including local, German-recruited police recruited who wouldn’t turn him in. Dozens of Jews passed through his little house. He fed them and, if possible, provided fresh clothes that would make them look like peasants rather than city people.
Sometimes, Shavel was so eager to help those in flight that he’d constantly peer out his door. Then, on seeing someone likely approach, he’d say, “This one is coming to me,” step outside, and ask, “Would you like a glass of water?” as if an old friend was making a casual visit. To infiltrate the operation, the Germans sent a spy to the good-natured Shavel who took good care of the man. Thus exposed, Shavel was arrested, tortured, and killed by the Germans. Later, Timchuk recouned, the underground caught the spy and took appropriate revenge.
Those Jews who made it as far as Shavel or some other village safe house would then be assembled into larger formations of 10 to 15 people for the 25-mile-long walk to the partisans. Among the guides for this leg of the journey was a 14-year-old boy named Vasya, son of a teacher and a Soviet soldier. living at Lugovaya Street 6 in Minsk. He’d walk about 300 yards ahead of them, glancing back to check the progress of the group strung out in a long line behind him. When they reached a partisan patrol, he’d leave them at the outpost and go ahead alone to the unit’s headquarters, proudly announcing, “Comrade commander, I’ve brought you reinforcements!” He and his mother were both killed during the war.
But there’s a problem in recounting these stories, though they should be told. While justly celebrating those who acted bravely and decently, it purveys a deceptive cheeriness, as if the Germans were a bunch of fools easily outwitted, that the chronicle of these days is one of success, and the typical story of survival. That’s just not so. A few were saved; hundreds of thousands were murdered.
Here’s the truly important event that took place in Minsk: on November 8 and 9, 1941, the Germans and their local collaborators committed mass murder on a huge scale. On the western outskirts of Minsk is a natural depression in the land, a little valley, a sort of amphitheatre. And there, Jews were taken on various pretexts, forced down into that grassy bowl, machinegunned by the thousands and buried, often alive. It is comfortable and comforting to read of those who escaped; the overwhelming main narrative is of those who did not.
Unless the underground could put armed men into the field, however, it would remain ineffectual. The time finally came in November 1941 when the underground’s leaders met in the Minsk apartment of Vladimir Omelyanyuk and decided to start armed struggle north of Minsk.
Major Vasily Trofimovich Voronyansky, a Red Army man still on active duty, is appointed commander; Timchuk, a civilian, can only become the commissar. Just after New Year’s Day, the two men leave Minsk to begin the fight. Yet by March 1942, as the Jews of Dolhinov are being murdered, there is no effective force to help them or provide refuge.
They call the unit the People’s Avengers’ Brigade. Its first task was survival, to hide in the woods. Nowhere in Europe was so suited for guerrilla warfare than those old, deep and silent forests of Belarus where trees often grew too thick to step between. They were so dense and forboding as to be like the enchanted wood of fairy tales, so remote that they were the last stronghold of the auracs, sole surviving ancestor of the cattle, which had never been tamed. Sometimes the Partisans received food from supportive peasants and sympathetic Polish landowners; at others, they took what they needed by force.
At first, the Germans were too busy advancing, their fingers reaching out toward Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad; too busy to murder the Jews; too busy to chase the Partisans. But this grace period didn’t last long. The German units, their Baltic allies, and their local militias, were soon on the hunt for both. They were unwilling to enter the deep forests but they frequently cast out their nets. Time after time, they encircled the Partisans; time after time they escaped.
Like all guerrilla wars, the Soviet effort against the Germans depended on popular support, people ready to risk their lives not only by fighting but also by supplying food, guides, intelligence, and safe houses. As Timchuk well understood, such support could not be obtained by force. You needed people like the illiterate old farmer from the village of Inarovichi, south of Minsk, who in August 1941 somehow got his hands on a ton of German army TNT and buried it in the forest. In January 1942, he met Timchuk in Minsk and announced: “I know you are a Soviet official. I have a small present for you.”
In Timchuk’s unpublished memoir, and in all the materials published by the Soviets after the war, the masses are credited for their loyalty to the Soviet motherland. There are many stories depicting such behavior. Here’s one such whose truth I don’t doubt.
The date, April 30, 1944, Timchuk’s unit is surrounded by Germans. Fighting has been continuous. Timchuk, his aide Avraham Friedman, and brigade commander Voronyansky are so exhausted that they ask an old peasant woman if they could rest in her house. She shows them into a small room, brings them straw to lie on, and they fall into uneasy sleep for three or four hours:
“When we heard the old woman light a stove we got up. She gave us soup and potatoes with chicken. After the meal we thanked her. Then we heard the granddaughter’s voice: “Granny, have you cooked the chicken? May I have a piece?
“The old woman answered: `Ninochka, all the chicken I gave to the partisans. They are fighting for us. We will eat potatoes.’ It was a hard psychological moment. She didn’t leave even a piece of chicken for her granddaughter.”
But matters weren’t always so simple and Timchuk never could have succeeded if he hadn’t understood that fact. Stalin had called on the people to rebel in his first speech of the war, on July 7, 1941, but nothing happened. Many Russians—and even more Ukrainians and Byelorussians–saw the Germans as liberators. If the Nazis had instead behaved less like a master race and more like their World War One predecessors, millions of people in Eastern Europe would have rallied to them.
Many veteran Soviet citizens and those Poles and others involuntarily given that status in 1939, hated the USSR. As Lithuanians or Latvians or Estonians, Poles or Ukrainians, they thought of the Soviet Union not as the workers’ fatherland but as Russian imperialists who were surpressing their nations. Religious people, common among these groups, hated the Soviets as atheists; peasants, shopowners, and businessmen, hated the Soviets as Communists. A lot of them hated Jews, associating them with the Russians and Communists.
Thus, the Soviet partisans killed German-appointed mayors, police chiefs, and agents. They had to destroy assets belonging to local people which the Germans were using. If peasants weren’t forthcoming with food, it had to be taken from them.
For their part, Jews had no choice but to help the Soviet side if they could. The Germans offered Jews only two alternatives: be killed or flee to the partisans. But everyone else in the German-ruled areas did have options. There was a delicate line to be trodden by men like Timchuk between the need to intimidate those opposed or indifferent to the Soviets while not alienating them so much that they would help his enemies.
By March 1942, Timchuk had between 300 and 450 people under his command, escaped Soviet prisoners of war, Jews, local Byelorussians, and some civilians who’d fled the Germans. But in April, a whole new and unexpected group arrived: hundreds of Jews who’d survived the massacres in Dolhinov and other towns.
One of those who’d survived the second massacre in Dolhinov was Chaia Kutzivitz who’d escaped with her mother and little sister Sarah from the ghetto’s smoldering remains.
Chaia’s family knew a farmer in Yashkova named Peter, and her Gitlitz cousins had been hidden by him during the First Action. As the sun came up the next morning, they hid in bushes outside town. Who knew whether the small shepherd boy they could see tending his flock nearby would be eager to turn them in to the Nazis.
The next night, they set off and as they walked Chaia’s mother told the two girls, “You see my daughters, there is so much hatred and carnage around us. If anyone stays alive, the only place for us to go is Eretz Israel.” Much later, Chaia remembered, “We thought of that statement as a commandment.”
Finally, in the middle of the night, they found Peter’s farm. He cried and hugged them. Though he knew he was risking his life, the farmer hid them in his barn’s haystack for several days. After a brief visit back to Dolhinov to see who’d survived and what remained, they headed for the forest. A male cousin refused to go with them. Having lost his wife and three sons, he’d also lost any desire to remain alive himself. A few weeks later, he was dead.
The rest left for the forests, seven Katzovitzs: Chaia and Bushke, their mother and little sister, and Shimon, their uncle plus his two daughters. Mindel and Shula. Chaia knew a woodcutter who helped them hide during daylight. Hearing about the partisans, they—joined by Avram Dimenshtein—decided to go to them. Chaia and Bushke were sent to get supplies. They put on headscarves to look like “farm girls” and entered several towns, but they could find no Jews left alive. Some who saw them were suspicious and townspeople were searching for Jews to turn in to the Germans. They knew it was impossible to stay where they were much longer.
One night, a heavy rainstorm came and the small group of fugitives was drenched down to our bones, as were their last few possessions. The next morning, as they dried themselves in the sun, Avraham Dimenshtein said, “Who would take care of us when we will get sick? A death sentence is hanging over our head. Let’s go and die amongst the Jews.” And at last they found Timchuk’s men and their family camp.
As one of them, Eliezer Shod of Krivichi, described life there, “It seemed that when they warmed themselves near the bonfires, they all put their yearnings and dreams and hopes for a better tomorrow into songs and declarations of loyalty to all that was left behind…. At first glance, we were part of a larger group, but at the same time we felt very lonely and isolated sitting at the table of strangers. Many, many of us were the sole survivors of families. We had no one remaining who we could love or declare our loyalty to.”
The third place from which Dolhinov Jews escaped to join the partisan unit was the Karolin estate about five miles outside of town. The manager was a Pole named Cybulski. He decided that he would save as many Jews as he could and told the Germans that if they wanted a good crop to feed their soldiers he needed some Jewish workers.
There, on the same land their ancestors probably had labored on long before, five families from Dolhinov, totaling about thirty people, were so assigned. They included a tailor and a shoemaker, to make what peasants there needed; a blacksmith, from the Gultz family, to repair the tools; an agricultural expert to help run the farm; and the Sosensky family, which took care of the cows and horses.
All the Jewish families lived in one small house, each having a room to their own. These were terrible conditions compared to what they had been used to before the war but far superior to life in the ghetto. Food was plentiful.
The Germans didn’t keep any soldiers or police at the small hamlet but they warned Cybulski that in supplying this labor there was one condition: Make sure they don’t escape. Cybulski ignored this proviso. He didn’t lock them up at night. Every day these Jews could see the huge forests across the narrow river, in what had been not so long ago Soviet territory. The local peasants said sometimes Partisans appeared in those very forests and they knew the Germans and Polish police were afraid to enter for that very reason.
As at the work camp, however, the Jews in Karolin had no incentive to escape until, after the second massacre in Dolhinov, German forces were coming there to complete their work. Cybulski warned the Jews of what was about to happen, and the five families escaped into the near-by forest.
Here then are 30 people, dressed in rags, wandering along the forest paths. It is like a dream, yet no more so than all the other bizarre and terrible happenings they had lived through. Sometimes they come upon other groups of Jews searching for the fighters. At any moment, they might meet up with bandits who will rob or even kill them. Or the partisans can be unfriendly and do the same. It is their good luck. The armed men they finally find are in the Peoples’ Avengers Brigade.
The third escape route, and the hardest, was directly from Dolhinov itself. The biggest group that came to the People’s Avengers began with a March or April 1942 meeting of about 20 young people. The leaders were Avraham Freedman and Sigalchik. Their goal was escape and resistance. But they faced huge problems. Hiding and feeding so many people in the forest was a major undertaking. Sigalchik and two friends snuck out to visit a friendly farmer named Anatosh Zutzman who promised to help them and told them amazing news: partisans wearing Red Army uniforms were crossing the river nightly to take food from farmers before crossing back.
In the evening they returned to the ghetto and planned to take all their friends out the next night. But that was the very day that the SS arrived to commit the Second Massacre, surrounding the ghetto. Some wanted to hide but Sigalchik insisted they had to leave immediately.
Avraham Friedman, Sigalchik, and their group went to a hidden exit, and removed bricks that had been used to camouflage it. But they saw there were two Germans nearby so they walked around the fence to the synagogue looking for a way out. Friedman saw two Polish police standing near the fence but were they friends or murderers? Their lives depended on the answer to that question. It was, indeed, Maslovsky and Takovich. Maslovsky whispered to him in Yiddish, “Where are you going?”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“As long as I am not replaced here, you can leave, but after I am replaced, there is nothing I can do.”
And so they broke out of the fence and under the protective eye of their two Polish friends, they lived.
Immediately, though, Sigalchik realized that he’d left behind his best friend Leib Mindel and had to return. Friedman told him he was crazy but he turned around, went through an opening in the fence, and was back inside the ghetto. Walking through backyards and houses he reached the hideout he and Mindel had built and yelled, “Get out Leib! I found a way out!” All those inside followed him out the hole in the fence.
Like the Jews from Pharoah’s Egypt, they’d left so fast that they had no food or supplies. They scattered to make concealment easier. Friedman went to his friend, Takevich’s brother. Others found a safe place since Anatosh Zutzman’s held them in the bathhouse of Falian village. The sounds of gunfire reached their ears and they later found that the hideout they’d prepared, and would have used that day, under Yosef Kremer’s barn had been discovered and all there who’d arrived there after they left had been killed, including Sigalchik’s sister and her children. Fourteen others, including Sigalchik’s mother, survived in the cowshed hideout.
And yet, when the Takevich brothers told them that the massacre was over, back many of them went once again to Dolhinov to find out what had happened to their families and to seek supplies. They found bodies everywhere and neighbors looting their homes. Friedman assembled a group of 21, including Dr. Kotler.
They walked the five miles to Kamin, a little village by the river, and found a hiding place near the forests and swamps along the river. It was the usual jumping-off point for Jews fleeing to the partisans. It was also, remarkably enough, the place where almost 200 years earlier my ancestors of a dozen generations ago worked for the man who owned Dolhinov, the duke of Kaminsky. The village was still there on the river Vilya even though the Polish nobility wasn’t.
The refugees asked the peasants to row them across. Fearful of the partisans or willing to help, they did so, ferrying them three or four at a time in little boats across the rough half-mile river, swollen with the melted snows. And finally they were on the other side.
Wandering in the Malinkowa forest, some time later, they suddenly heard a yell in Russian: “Stop! Who’s there?”
“We are friends. We are Jews from Dolhinov.”
“Stand where you are and don’t move,” said the partisan.
The unit commander asked suspiciously, “So you are from Dolhinov? Do any of you know Ivan Timchuk?”
“I know him very very well,” answered Sigalchik confidently. “And others here also know him because he was our employer in the farm.” Sigalchik supplied feed for the foxes while Moshe Forman, another member of the group, was the accountant. Both men considered Timchuk not just a boss but also as a friend. Sigalchik and Forman, who had no idea up until this moment that Timchuk was the partisan’s commander, had tears in their eyes.
They waited there in that remote spot under the watchful eyes of the patrol until six in the evening, when they saw three soldiers dressed in green uniforms approaching, with wooden-holstered pistols on their hips. As they got closer, the escapees stood at attention, trying to show they would be worthy recruits, shaking with excitement.
Segalchik realized it was Timchuk:
“He came towards us and shook our hands and kissed us. I could see that he was extremely excited and he had tears in his eyes. He was a man with a very warm soul….Timchuk couldn’t stop asking about every minute and vital detail. How did we escape? Which of the people he knew were saved? Who was dead or missing?” He was particularly saddened hearing about the deaths of some of his friends. He shook his head, “Such great guys and they couldn’t save themselves?”
Finally, Timchuk told them they would join a group of others, the one led by Friedman and Dr. Kotler, who’d also escaped from Dolhinov. “Rest for a day or two, then we will see what we can do with you. It’s very bad that you don’t have any weapons, but we will see. For now we must part, but we will see you later.” An officer took them down a path in the forest to two tents camouflaged with branches and leaves, next to two barrels with fires inside being used for cooking the food.
Sigalchik saw Chana Bronstein stirring the food and Eliyahu Maisel guarding the camp. He was overjoyed at finding other survivors of Dolhinov. Maisel had gotten out leading a group of 15, which met up along the way with Friedman’s and a few others. They sat down to eat with utensils made of wood, as far as they knew the three dozen sole survivors of more than 4000 Dolhinov Jews. There were more than they knew, but all too few.
Avraham Friedman and his group had run the same gauntlet. When he’d been stopped by a partisan patrol, trying to determine if he was a German spy, they asked, “Where did you work during the Soviet times?” The moment Avraham mentioned he had worked for Timchuk, a messenger was sent and the commissar immediately summoned him. With two men, probably NKVD agents, he met Friedman and the others. The refugees stared hungrily at their beautiful pistols.
Timchuk also pumped him for all the details about who had, and had not survived. At the end, he told the exhausted men, “Get some rest, and then you will be good fighters.” For them, it was like being reborn. Friedman was assigned to Lieutenant Kisilov’s squad. But soon, he’d be made Timchuk’s assistant.
Friedman would accompany Timchuk for the rest of the war. The fact that Timchuk chose to trust this non-Communist Jew so completely–though Friedman had no military experience whatsoever before taking up arms against the Germans–says something about Timchuk’s lack of prejudice. And Timchuk was not disappointed, either by the 24-year-old Friedman or the rest of the Jewish partisans. In fact, four of Friedman’s brothers would also fight in the unit along with several cousins. His sister had already been murdered by the Germans; two of the brothers and a cousin would die fighting.
For Timchuk, while these reinforcements were welcome, they also gave him a difficult problem: how to feed, clothe, and equip these people through one of the roughest winters anywhere in Europe. Jewish refugees–mostly women, children, and older people—seemed to be a drain on partisans’ resources. At best, other units turned them away, especially anyone who wasn’t a young man bringing his own weapon; at worst, they murdered, robbed, or raped them.
Even Timchuk’s own military commander Voronyansky didn’t want to take in the Jews but Timchuk turned away no one. On the contrary, he established what was called a “family camp” and turned the refugees into a military asset. He detached 50 soldiers to protect it. The detachment’s commander, First Lieutenant Gennady Safonov, took his responsibilities so seriously, risking his life to protect the refugees, that he was later recognized as a Righteous Gentile by Yad ve-Shem.
For the civilians’ added safety, the camp was situated five miles from the partisans’s base. In the family camps lived all those who could not be armed partisans, the children, women, and elderly, including the local fighters’ own families. Between 4,000 and 5,000 Jews survived that way, about one-third of them with Timchuk’s unit.
Not all was idyllic by a long shot. They were still hungry, weak, and lacked winter clothing but at least they had a chance to stay alive. These were people in a desperate situation, who’d been through hell and whose continued existence balanced on a knife edge. One day, for instance, Batya Sosensky’s father saw a very large Jewish man taking far more than his share of food. Courageously, he told the man to give back what he’d bullied away from others. The man began a fight in which Batya’s brother was pushed down and badly hurt.
Given these rough conditions, Abraham Friedman told Esther Telis, a refugee from Dolhinov, that since he was friendly with her parents he wouldn’t take her into his unit’s family camp, because there was much fighting in the area. The real reason is that he knew girls there were sometimes pressured by soldiers into sleeping with them.
Otherwise, though, the family camp functioned as a support group for the soldiers: gathering food where possible, repairing shoes and clothes, doing laundry, making or fixing military equipment, setting up a hospital, even growing crops if possible. Despite all this, recalled one of the Dolhinov refugees, Gendel Kaplan, “Of course we were a great burden to the detachment. We hindered its maneuverability and drew away strength to guard us.”
The civilians—including at least one Polish family from Dolhinov fleeing German persecution and Bylorussian peasants whose villages have been destroyed–were organized into “platoons” of 25 each. Timchuk found this support unit to be most valuable, later recalling, “Everything that was brought into the camp was redone, repainted, resewed and sent back to partisans by the best tailors in Eastern Europe. Ragged pants and jackets were cut up and recombined into wearable clothes; about 1000 pairs of boots were made a year. Timchuk reported, “We had good boots, warm gloves and hats.” Nor did he forget the delicious bread and rolls baked in the camp by Jews who were professional bakers. Esther Telis’s cousin, Peretz, was quickly accepted into the family camp after he shows his great skill making tasty sausages, learned from his father who was one of Dolhinov’s butchers.
They even started a newspaper, using a printing press and equipment smuggled out of Glebokie in January 1943 by Avraham and Mitzia Friedman. Jewish refugees—including Moshe Forman and Gershon Yoffe from Dolhinov—wrote, edited, and printed the newspaper, pamphlets, and leaflets reporting news and mobilizing resistance.
Most valuable of all was Dolhinov’s Dr. Kotler, for whom Timchuk had the highest words of praise. “Everyone loved him,” the tough partisan commander said. Before Kotler arrived, the unit had only a lightly trained medic. With his wife as nurse, the couple never lost a patient, operating cooly even in the midst of German attacks.
During a typhoid epidemic, when she worked in the People’s Avenger’s hospital, Esther Telis was spotted there by Kotler. As a little girl, she’d been his first patient when he arrived in Dolhinov, treating her for measles, and was friendly with her family.
He asked, “What are you doing here?”
“I’m helping out.”
“I don’t want you here,” he replied. “You’ll get typhus.” And the next day she was sent back to work in the kitchen.
In the end, she was one of the few who never caught typhus. But after all that she and the others had been through, how could one regard a bit of disease as frightening?
How did Jews from Dolhinov, about 300 in number and outnumbered ten to one by the corpses of friends and families back in town–and those from several other places–arrive still alive at the People’s Avengers’ at all through so much death and destruction? There were three ways, each of which was a remarkable story in its own right: from the work camp, Dolhinov directly, and from the Karolin estate.
Not all the Dolhinov Jews had been kept by the Germans in the town, nor were all under the Gestapo’s control. The German regular army had established a work camp at a place called Kohina, twelve miles from Dolhinov, where about 100 young Jews from Dolhinov and Krivichi were sent. In that area, a lack of Jews had created a slave labor shortage for helping peasants whose crops went to feed the German army. To provide this work force, the Germans gave the Judenrat a quota, much of which was filled by volunteers. Dolhinov supplied around 50 at a time; the rest came from Krivichi.
Some of Dolhinov’s young Jews decided to volunteer for several reasons: to get away from the horrors in town, to live under open skies and fresh air. They were treated well by the Polish peasants for whom they labored. The work camp was the closest thing anyone might have to a vacation. Though it involved all-day labor and backbreaking work, at least it was away from close German supervision.
It was also believed by a number of Dolhinov Jews—correctly as it turned out, though only by accident–that the survival chances there were much higher there than in town. Indeed, parents encouraged them to go. But they periodically came back for one reason alone—they missed their families, felt guilty for deserting them, and wanted to help them survive. For Ida Friedman and many others, that guilt would remain. For while she was in the camp, her entire family was killed in the Second Action.
Chaia Katzovitz had gone into the forest after the First Action. But she didn’t find a group that would take her and returned to Dolhinov in May for supplies and to see her mother briefly. She told her mother how hard it was to survive in the woods, feeling like hunted animals, with no shelter from the weather, and constantly moving. “Don’t go back,” said her mother, “Work for the Germans in the Kaniha camp. The people in that camp seem to be treated well and so far they did not have any mass executions there.” Chaia registered with the Judenrat to go there, though she was too homesick to stay long. Such were the limited choices the Jews of Dolhinov had in those days.
From dawn to dusk the young Jews worked in the fields, existing on the potatoes they dug up and hid or were given by peasants. The hardest work was pressing hay into bales. Others loaded railroad cars with grain at the train station about one hour’s walk from the camp. But in the evening, if not too exhausted merely to sleep, their time was free.
The camp was surrounded by a double strand of barbed wire and included a barn where prisoners slept and a primitive kitchen. About 40 German soldiers were stationed about 100 yards away, but there main job was guarding the railroad. In addition, these soldiers were from a punishment unit, meaning either the soldiers were physically unfit to fight or they were not politically reliable men, perhaps pre-war Social Democrats.
The leader among the prisoners was Abrasha Feinsilber, a German-speaker from Dolhinov who passed them on to the others. Feinsilber was tall and handsome, blonde and blue-eyed, a naturally charismatic leader. In his early 30s, he was also older than the other workers who were mostly teenagers. Having worked as a bookkeeper for some years in Vilna, he fulfilled the same function for the camp’s commander in an office housed in the railroad station.
Another older man named Hurewitz had the job of travelling into town to bring back food for them. One day he was murdered on the road by passing German soldiers, unimpressed with his protestations that he was on a mission for their army.
Those in the camp could have escaped at any time but, as what happened to Hurewitz showed them, it seemed more dangerous outside than inside the barbed wire. At any rate, where, in the early months of 1942, could they go? The partisans might kill them faster than the Germans, they had no close ties to local peasants, and to be outside the wall when not working carried the death sentence. Since no one was bothering them where they were, why not stay there except, as some periodically did, to sneak home?
In July 1942, all that was changed by a chain of events that seem unlikely, yet what was normal or logical about the year 1942?
He’s young, lost, tired and hungry, cold in a country and countryside of which he knows nothing. His uniform, tattered as it is, is a death sentence as he scrambles through the fields, not sure where to go but always headed east, following the stars. Most of his fellow soldiers had called him the “Zoska of Estonia,” the Jew from Estonia, a rarity in a country that has few Jews and in a Red Army that has few Estonians. His actual name, though, is Abram-Joseph Blechman. For days he has wandered from the prisoner of war camp he’s escaped.
Breathing hard, he pushes aside the branches that slap at his face. Stepping onto a road is unthinkable. At any moment he might come face to face with German soldiers or a shouted challenge he cannot answer satisfactorily, followed quickly by flying lead that would lead him into the world to come. When he can’t go on any longer due to exhaustion, he looks for a peasant’s hut or farmer’s house, watching a bit, unseen; trying to read the thoughts of those inside.
Who can he ask for food? Those within might fear the Germans or crave their reward. If they are Poles they might merely hate Russians, their traditional foes and recent oppressors. He doesn’t even speak Polish. And if they are Byelorussians they might merely hate the Soviets who seized their land and commandeered their crops. Most would turn him away; some would turn him in. But so far Blechman has guessed right enough times to survive.
Only 20 years old, he has seen enough horror in the past two years to last a lifetime. The Soviets had seized the country where he lived in June 1940, then forced him into their army to be dispatched to occupied Poland in early 1941. Then he had fought in a losing war, been captured, badly treated, every moment facing death by disease or execution for being a Red Army man or Jew. Yet he had not lost his hope and courage. Perhaps that’s why he’d survived this long.
Such a man on such a day in such a place expected little. But as his feet took him downward to the course of a little river and the cold stream waer flowed through his ragged shoes as if his feet were bare, he heard something. Sheep were bleating. Sheep meant people. Cautiously, he advanced, pushing the reeds apart and saw a vision, as much of a mirage as one might ever see in the muddy late winter of eastern Poland in 1942.
There were the sheep, of course, with their matted white winter coats of tarnished snow. But watching them, sitting on the grass, were two pretty young girls. Not just young girls, mind you, for there were young girls enough in Poland, but Jewish girls. Joseph had grown up among the tall, fair Estonians, who were really just Scandinavians on the wrong side of the Baltic Sea. He knew the commonly Slavic, but usually distinguishable, Russians and Poles. In the army, he had met Tartars from the east and the other Turkic people of the Soviet Union.
But he knew Jews when he saw them. And if that was not enough they were speaking Yiddish.
At worst, this was a mirage, not a trap. He stepped forward slowly, talked to them softly. They were as startled as he. Yet they knew who they were and an escaped Russian prisoner, a Jewish one at that, did not seem as impossible as their being at that place. They were sorry that they had no food and their eyes showed they had been through as much as him. As to why they were there, it was their job from the work camp at Kohina. They pointed. No, there were not many German soldiers in the area.
He did not linger long but with a warm good-bye he continued on his trek, eastward again, leaving the two girls behind with much to talk about.
Some days later, Blechmann came to Timchuk’s partisan unit. After an interrogation, he was welcomed into their camp, told to get something to eat. An officer pointed to where he should go, where the partisans’ helpers, escaped Jews from Dolhinov were preparing food. He sat down to wait and, of course, they wanted to hear his news. His home, family, experiences, where he’d been, how he’d escaped, in what manner his feet led him to that very spot.
In the midst of his tales, Blechmann gave up his recent memory’s prize treasure. “It was the strangest thing…” he began. The scene arose before his eyes and his words made it appear before his listeners. In great detail, he described the girls.
And one of the women listening asked him to repeat the story. And he did. And she said: “That’s my daughter, Rachel.” It was Rasia Rubin, she whose brother, Benjamin, had been slain because he’d worked for the Soviets, and whose brother Shlomo had died to save her family. To his astonishment, her son Arieh had found the family alive after the Second Action and they had fled to the partisans. Now she was in this camp, at this fire, hearing these words. But she had thought Rachel was dead, like all the others.
Rasia asked then she pleaded, with Blechmann to go back to the camp with Arieh, to bring safely back not only Rachel but her oldest son Victor, who she thought was there as well. She had no doubt, and she was right to have no doubt.
It was a lot to ask of a man who had himself just stumbled into safety after a long, hard ordeal. Could he even find the place? It would have been easy for Blechmann to dismiss Rasia’s plea as the deluded fantasy of a woman who’d suffered too much and wished too freely, just another mother weeping for her lost children. But Blechmann had a mother, perhaps a sister, and he certainly had a lot of courage and a strong conscience. He agreed.
After a time of rest, some hours or not more than a day or two, Bleeeuchman and Arieh set out through the German-infested, collaborator-filled countryside with no map to guide them. They found the very place, the two girls watching the sheep. It was indeed Rachel. Arieh called out, “It’s me, your brother, Arieh.”
Understandably, Rachel thought it was a ghost and ran away. Arieh ran, too, pounding across the uneven grassy field, breathing hard until with a burst of speed he caught his squealing sister; held her in his arms; and convinced her that it was him alive, him and not a ghost, or a seraph or a messenger.
That night, Rachel helped them sneak into the camp, Arieh reunited with Victor, and the two visitors met with Feinsilber and the others. Blechman did most of the talking. Still wearing his Red Army clothes, he must have carried a special fascination for Jews who weren’t used to their side having the uniforms. His very high forehead bespoke intelligence and his eyes burned with passion. Yet despite all he had been through he still looked very young and naïve.
With open mouths the young people listened to his stories about partisans and how they were helping those Jews of Dolhinov who had successfully fled to them. He said that the partisans, especially their commander, Ivan Timchuk, were ready to help save Jews. Many of those there had known him from before the war when their parents or older siblings worked for him at the fox farm.
Arieh Rubin and Blechmann, along with Rachel and Victor—going to be reunited with their family—were joined by three young men from Krivitchi who wanted to join the partisans and were willing to spy out the land. The rest were not so eager. There, it was as if the Germans had forgotten about them. At any rate, they were wards of the army, not in the clutches of the SS or security police.
They had heard enough about partisans to make them fearful and suspicious, even while hearing their praises sung in Yiddish. Their attitude was that of the ancient Israelites who rebuked Moses with what is the first Jewish joke: What! There aren’t enough graves in Egypt that you brought us here? And so most decided to stay just where they were until they knew more about what to expect in the woods. It was just a small group of seven that headed back to the People’s Avengers.
If Chaia Katzovitz had not already left the work camp due to homesickness, she would have run into her sister, Bushke. But at the time, Chaia had no idea whether Bushke was alive. Indeed, it was Bushke who had best expressed the paradox of the Dolhinov Jews up to that time: Only running away could save them from a death sentence but the bitter fact was there “was no route of escape for us.”
When the Second Action had ended with her still alive on May 1, 1942, Bushke chose to go to the nearby town of Kurenitz were still 1300 Jews lived. (They were not to be massacred until September 9.) Avram Dimenstein joined her on the long walk. Early one morning they arrived and some Jewish families took in the fugitives, despite the fact that they had nothing to eat, no space to stand, and giving safe haven to unregistered Jews would bring instant death to them all.
A few days later, while Bushke was walking in a field on the edge of town, a horse and buggy passed her. “Bushke!” yelled someone on board. She was surprised to see it was Feinsilber. Such was the paradox of the time that while thousands of Jews were being murdered everywhere, Feinsilber was given leave to consult Kurenitz’s Jewish doctor about a minor illness he was having. He pulled the horse to a stop and jumped down to the ground. His news made Bushke jump. Both her mother and little sister had joined partisans in the woods, Blechmann had reported, and now Chaia had gone to join them.
Feinsilber felt so secure that he urged her to persuade all those from Dolhinov living, if one could call it life, in Kurenitz to come to the camp for safety. The German army men didn’t care who came and went. Jobs could be found to replace those—including her own sister—who’d escaped. And if she chose to go to the forests, he concluded, it would be easier to do so from the camp than from the town.
Convinced, she, Dimenstein, and several others walked from Kurenitz to join the camp a few days later, sneaking in without any difficulty. Already, Blechmann had become a legend there, a young Moses who would lead them to safety. Soon, the boys who’d accompanied Blechmann returned. One of them was Eliyahu Bunimovich, who’d survived the massacres in Krivichi and come to the work camp with his sister, Shifra, children of Chana Rubin of Dolhinov.
Bunimovich was a large man, strong and determined to fight. When he and his companions returned in the first few days of August, they reported: It was all right. The partisans would accept them and treat them well. Everyone began planning their escape.
It was not a moment too soon. One day, some SS men came from their Vileika base to inspect the camp. They didn’t stay long but there was no doubt what this meant. Such a pattern had been seen before in Dolhinov.
One guard, “Corporal Willy,” was particularly friendly to the Jews. As a Jewish prisoner recalled, “He would never scream or curse or humiliate us….Almost daily he would secretly give us some food, like a few pieces of bread and leftover cooked food from the kitchen.” He warned the Jews that his unit was being transferred and it was time for them to leave: “I don’t want to be responsible for your deaths. The SS is coming soon and you must go.” Willy even gave Bunimovich a primitive gun. Tragically, some time later, the anti-Nazi soldier would later be killed in a shoot-out with partisans.
That very day, the older prisoners held a meeting and decided to escape as soon as possible. During the day, when the prisoners were taken out to work, only the cook remained in the camp, with no guards around. Bunimovich became the cook and was able to cut the wire and then put it back so the break would be invisible.
Bunimovich counted carefully to make sure that all 82 Jews were together and ready at 9 PM, late enough for it to be very dark but early enough so that no guard would think it unusual that prisoners were still walking around. Feinsilber was working in the camp office and the plan was to collect him later. But one other person was also missing, Israel Katzovich, the youngest prisoner who was barely a teenager. Searching desperately through the camp, Bunimovich finally found him. Katzovich hadn’t been feeling well and fell asleep in a quiet corner of the camp, not realizing it was time to go. Bunimovich quickly got everyone organized.
Fortunately, the weather was terrible, with rain pouring down heavily, and the guards on duty had stayed inside their shed, not bothering to watch the camp. Bunimovich went out first to check, making sure the way was clear then returned to send off everyone. In small prearranged groups, everyone went through the opening in the barbed-wire. They were armed with knifes, axes, pitchforks, bludgeons, and sticks to defend themselves if necessary.
But no guard noticed anything. They groups headed for a place a mile and a half away where they were to reassemble and be guided by those who’d returned from the partisans. But if anyone got lost they knew to walk toward the village of Lesniki, about 20 miles away, where the People’s Avengers partisan unit had its base.
As the other prisoners scattered into the night, Bunimovich and two other men stayed behind on a rescue mission, his friend GedaliyaVolkovich, another bold young guy who’d gone with him to the partisans and returned to lead out the other prisoners, and the somewhat woozy Katzovich. While Katzovich kept insisting he was fine, Bunimovich wanted to keep a close eye on him to make sure he wouldn’t collapse again. The trio headed for the camp office at the railroad station.
Hiding behind bushes, they snuck up to the window and peered into the office. There was Feinsilber and the German officer hard at work. At that precise moment, they heard shooting from back at the camp. The guards had finally noticed that all the prisoners had escaped. Wasting no time, the three men climbed through the window. Before the German could get to his rifle, Bunimovich grabbed it and pointed it at him. As the others checked the office, the German sat frozen, shaking with fear.
The four men picked up the entire camp treasury, in German marks, some clothes, and train tickets to Berlin that the officer had been intending to use while on leave. Feinsilber put on the officer’s military coat and put the revolver into the pocket. As soon as they left through the window, the officer started screaming for help. But it was too late. The prisoners disappeared into the night.
The four men easily got away. On their own, they headed for the partisans picking up ten more Jews they found hiding in a village along the way.
But one thing went wrong. Somehow, Feinsilber became separated from the other three. He did make it to the forest and ran into a partisan patrol. They took one look at the German officers’ coat he was wearing, decided he was a Nazi spy, and shot him dead on the spot. It was a tragic end for a brave young man who had shown exceptional leadership skills. He had helped save over 100 lives but was unable in the end to save himself. Bunimovich later became a heroic fighter, a demolitions’ expert in charge of a partisan squad which sabotaged the German railroads.
But even with the best will in the world and taking as many Jewish refugees into his ranks as possible, how could the People’s Avengers and neighboring units carry out their mission and supply their fighters while supporting and protecting hundreds of civilians, escapees from Dolhinov and other towns who kept trickling in through the forest? Fate, and military developments, provided an answer.
By now the Red Army was fighting back effectively, having stopped the Nazis at the very gates of Stalingrad and Moscow. Many of those Germans who’d ridden up the road through Dolhinov were now dead, the equipment wrecked. As the Soviet Third and Fourth Shock Armies advanced in September 1942, they pushed apart the German units facing them, opening a 25-mile-wide gap between the German Army Group North and Army Group Center. This passageway into central Belarus was called the Surazh Gates.
The Soviets made good use of the partial breakthrough, until the Germans closed the gap around September 25. Forward came guns and ammunition, medical supplies and trained soldiers. Back through the Soviet lines, new recruits for training and veterans in need of rest, and also civilians fleeing the Germans. Timchuk radioed headquarters with an idea: some of the Jewish refugees could be evacuated through the gates, the young men recruited into the Red Army, the rest sent to places where they could safely work to serve the war effort.
The partisan chiefs back in Moscow approved an operation. This was a highly unusual decision which can only be explained by Timchuk’s prestige and persistence. All the Allies—American, British, and Soviet alike—always put priority on the military effort narrowly defined.
They argued that the greatest humanitarian deed, the best way to save lives, was to win the war as quickly as possible. They refused to diverge resources to bomb railroad lines leading to concentration camps. This was an understandable choice–professional soldiers saw any non-military action as a distraction—but it also doomed hundreds of thousands of Jews to horrible deaths. Such thinking, however, was at times reinforced by a disinterest or outright contempt for Jewish lives in particular. There is no doubt about this in Stalin’s case.
It is interesting that nobody on the Soviet side ever saw exposing the mass murder of Jews as being a good propaganda tool against the Nazis. Their Communist system supposedly rejected making distinctions on an ethnic basis, though this rule seemed to apply most often and completely when Jews were involved. After all, the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland had been justified as helping downtrodden Byelorussians and Ukrainians who had not even sought Soviet assistance, much less Moscow’s trodding them down further. Part of the reason was that the Soviets never recognized Jews as a nationality; another part was the deep antisemitism of the Russian and other subject peoples. Trumpeting the truth about the Shoah would have made the Nazis more rather than less popular among them.
In contrast, Timchuk thought, aside from humanitarian considerations, in political and ideological terms. He didn’t just like Jews in general, finding them faithful comrades, but was personally acquainted with those at risk. Yet he knew how such actions had to be put into a framework that would appeal to his superiors.
The rescue operation was justified, then, purely as a military measure. Young, old and women who were a burden on the partisans would be removed; new recruits brought out of German-occupied territory for enlistment and training. This fictional military unit was thus called the People’s Avengers’ Brigade Special Purpose Detachment “Victory.” Timchuk sought the right leader for it and, on June 16, 1942, asked Lieutenant Nikolai Yakovlevich Kisilev, who accepted. Reportedly two other officers had already turned down the job as too tough, dangerous, or unmilitary.
Kisilev seems to have been an idealistic believing Communist very much in Timchuk’s mold. As such, he was a logical choice for the mission. Born to a peasant family in 1913, Kisilev grew up in Bogorodskoe village, Bashkiria, coincidentally close to where the people he was about to save would be sent by the Soviet government.
Like Timchuk he’d been a beneficiary of the Communist revolution, which gave him the opportunity to study in the Academy for Foreign Trade. He had volunteered for the army, become a political instructor on the Belarus front, was wounded in battle and captured. The Germans always shot commissars who fell into their hands, so Kisilev either concealed his duties or knew he had to get away before being processed by his captors. He leaped off the train taking him to the prisoner camp, made his way to the forest, and had fought with the People’s Avengers ever since.
Chaia Katzovitz was among the first civilians to find out about the plan. A group of Jewish partisan soldiers stopped by the family camp to visit relatives. Dressed in warm winter clothes—August in a Belarus forest is winter—they were carrying well-cleaned weapons and lots of ammunition, a far cry from the ragged undisciplined force of months ago. One of them was David Koplovich, from Vileika, who had been in Chaia’s high school class and had a lot of family in Dolhinov, where he spent every summer. “Good news,” he said, a commodity in especially rare supply in 1942 Belarus. There was a new plan to bring people out of German-held lands across Soviet lines to become soldiers or workers there.
But who was to go and who to stay? Yosef Sosensky wanted to go with his sister, Batya, and the remains of his family, but Timchuk persuaded him to stay with the unit. After all, Timchuk explained, even if Yosef survived the journey he’d just be immediately sent to the front as an anonymous replacement and probably be killed there, whereas his knowledge of the terrain and local people near his home was far more useful to the People’s Avengers. Sosensky agreed.
The almost 300 refugees originally selected would be accompanied by Kisilev and seven partisan soldiers, one of them, a local scout and intelligence-gatherer named Anya, would serve as guide for the initial part of the journey. The Jews came mostly from Dolhinov but also from the towns of Ilya, Knyazhitsy, Kurinetz, and Postav. All of them were Jewish except for one anti-Nazi Polish family from Dolhinov.
Among them were the surviving Kuzinitz family members, Chana and Yosef Kuznitz along with her husband’s mother and that woman’s daughter. The only intact nuclear family were my cousins on my father’s side Gavriel, 49, and Rasia Rubin, 44, and their children, Victor, Arieh, Rachael, and Leon Rubin. Others were sole survivors, like the eighteen-year-old Teiba Dimenshtein, my aunt on my mother’s side, though at least she had as protector a young man also from Dolhinov, her future husband, Shmuel Alperovitz.
But nothing was easy. After many rumors and some delays, the march was finally ready to start at the beginning of August when there came a devastating reminder that nowhere was safe. As the group was standing in line, about to leave camp, the ground shook with artillery fire and the rattle of machineguns. The Germans were launching an all-out surprise attack.
Civilians scattered in all directions, though bullets seemed to come from everywhere. Little Sara Kuzinitz is hit by a bullet in the cheek; Mordechai Hadash gets one in the leg. The seemingly indestructible Briana Katz, in her 70s, outruns the shots. Two are killed, beautiful Chaia Shulkin, a partisan and the last of her family, and a Jewish woman from Minsk.
The People’s Avengers’ shoot back and somehow the Germans, never too enthusiastic about fighting in the forest, are held. The resulting confusion and demoralization postpones departure for two weeks. Finally, for a second time, Kiselev takes the head of the column. Sara Kuzinitz isn’t with them. She and her mother have to stay behind as Dr. Kotler tends the little girl’s wounds. Chaia goes onward alone. They all survive the war. Hadash, also wounded, and his wife also stay with the partisans. They don’t.
The Victory unit, despite its optimistic name, doesn’t seem to have much of a chance. About 270 people actually set out. Only 6 of them were regular soldiers and another 20, mostly from Dolhinov, have some partisan experience. Their total armament consists of Kisilev’s revolver, 15 rifles, 15 grenades, and 5,000 rounds of ammunition. There are about 50 fit young men en route to join the Red Army but most are children (35 of them under 12 years old), mothers, and old people used to hard work but not outdoor survival skills. And they’re going to have to march ever eastward for two months through 750 miles of German-controlled territory, with all the twists and detours forcing them to cover double that distance.
During the day, they hid in the marshes; at night they stumbled eight to twelve miles through the forests, more when in particularly dangerous areas. Clothes were torn to pieces by branches and brambles. Shoes shredded by rain and mud to the point that some walked with feet wrapped in rags or in wooden clogs given them by peasants along the way.
Hiking through a Byelorussian forest is much harder than a pleasant saunter in a Western Europen or North American woods. Instead of tall trees with wide spaces between them, the trees are far slighter but as a result closer together, unpredictable in placement, surrounded by uneven ground. One can never quite keep in a straight line. This quality gives such forests their wild and romantic feel, yet also poses additional obstacles to exhausted, undernourished people dragging along children and making their way at night. To run from bullets without smacking face-first into a tree is a daunting task. It could be made into a tough Olympic event.
They went around villages to avoid detection, especially German-garrisoned Vitebsk, through forests and fields, occasionally daring to turn onto backroads. Mostly, they subsisted on swamp water, berries and mushrooms they picked, and potatoes given them by peasants. When the villages were friendly and empty of Germans, farmers offered food and shelter—three or four refugees in each hut–for the night. This being the real world, and a particularly brutal variant thereof, the partisans used the threat of their guns to get food when necessary. Peasants were orded to ferry them by boat across rivers that couldn’t be forded on foot.
“The people didn’t have proper clothes and shoes,” Kiselev wrote in his report afterward. “We had to fight Germans and police every day, sometimes just to get food.”
What would you take on such a journey, when fleeing for your life on a difficult trek? Of all things to save what was most important? The Dolhinov Jews independently made the same choice: family photos. Batye Sosinsky had taken with her during the escape from the ghetto three pictures of her mother. Her brother, Yehuda, was carrying them in his backpack during one German attack. They ran for their lives, backpack left behind. And when Teiba Dimenshtein had come back to her house for a few minutes to find her family murdered, she’d scooped up some pictures including one of her brother, killed a few minutes earlier. She didn’t have time to take the photo of my grandparents, sent from America to Teiba’s mother as a present.
Another time when the Germans attacked during the march, Leon Rubin’s father told the young boy to hold onto his jacket as they ran. Leon fell. So Leon’s sister, Rachel, threw away her pack, picked him up, and carried him to safety. Much of the contents lost that day were all the family photos they’d taken from their house after emerging from their hideout hole in the moments before they fled Dolhinov.
The first part of the march was the toughest. Several people were killed crossing the treacherous Berezina river where Napoleon’s army had come to grief during his retreat from Moscow. Bushke Brunstein remembered, “I was always in anxiety fearing that the person who was walking in front of me would become lost in the fog.” In the Rubin family, the father went first, the mother last, with the children between them for protection. Leon would sleep while walking, pulled forward by one of his brothers or by his sister.
Sleeping on the ground during Belarus’s rainy and cold late autumn was in itself a torture, and though the partisans barred bonfires at night lest they be sighted, no one could resist lighting some when the Germans seemed furthest and the chill night air closest. .
Once they reached Vitebsk, midway between the Germans’ secure rear area and the front line, it became easier for a while since partisan units controlled much of the area. The population was friendlier and more willing to share food and let the refugees sleep on the floors of the few homes not already burned down by the Germans. Along the way, young men, volunteers for the Red Army, joined the column. Local police didn’t know who these people were marching through their territory. But assuming the column was a large partisan unit they stayed away.
The refugees knew that at any moment during those weeks of journeying through hostile territory, the Germans could come down upon them. Physical hardships were surpassed by the sudden terror of two ambushes by regular German troops. Fifty people simply disappeared along the way, getting lost or killed by the Germans while running for cover. Several were left behind because they simply could not continue due to illness or wounds. Kisilev had to put first the whole group’s needs.
Silence at critical moments meant the difference between massacre and survival. At one point, they were walking along a river where the Germans were known to be nearby when two-year-old Berta Kramer could not stop crying. Fear she could give them away was no fantasy. The tears of little David Gitlitz had fatally led the Germans to himself and his mother during one of the massacres in Dolhinov.
The Kramers pleaded with her to stop, without success. What should they do? The lives of 300 people hinged on their choice and time was short as German ears could pick up the screams and sobs at any moment. Could they really force themselves to throw her in the river and drown her to stop the noise?
Berta cried out, “I want to live don’t throw me.”
Hersh Shperber, also from Dolhinov, the sole survivor of the massacred woodcutters who had stayed alive despite all the odds, walked up beside her father, Joseph, and said in the most serious possible voice, “If you harm her I would not recognize you any more.”
Kisilev himself ran over, took the little girl and carried her, whispering to her anything he could think of in order to calm her down. He succeeded and took her on his shoulder for most of the day. Both families survived and many years later when she was married, Yosef, called up the Shperbers to honor them under the huppa as, “The true parents of the bride who saved her life.”
Dealing with such desperate, traumatized people and terrible circumstances, Kisilev became such a beloved figure because of his ability to blend tough leadership with sensitivity to their human needs. He psychologically mastered a situation in which he could not order civilians as he might soldiers but had to deal with individuals, constantly needing to switch from cajolery to severity, encouragement to leading by example.
One of those on the march was Jacob Rubin of Dolhinov who, as if all the other obstacles weren’t enough, had a wooden leg. At one point when he was lagging, Kisilev insisted that the man ride on his horse. He refused.
“It’s an order,” said Kisilev.”
Rubin turned to his wife, “You ride on the horse, I can’t do it.”
“No I won’t do it either,” she replied.
This was one time when Kisilev gave up.
The simple truth is that a lesser man would have simply abandoned his charges or let them fall by the wayside. To care about human life at all—especially that of people many or most of one’s compatriots despised—in the Belarus of 1942 was no mean achievement.
On top of everything else, Kisilev had his own emotional entanglements on the march. He and the guide Anna Sirotkova, a Beyelorussian from one of the local towns who’d also volunteered for the journey, were probably already in love. They stayed together and were married after the war.
Yet the relative ease of the middle passage was only a prelude to the most intense terror of all at journey’s end: running the gauntlet to cross the battlefront itself. The closer they came to safety, the more the German presence grew. At last, they were in the empty town of Padochi, abandoned by its own people who’d fled from the battles, where they dared spend the night.
The next day came the ultimate challenge. Cautiously but swiftly they advanced, through the German lines. Volleys of shots were fired at them and several of the refugees were killed at the very last moment after all their travails. Suddenly, unbelieveably they were through, among the Red Army’s white-clad camouflaged soldiers who guided them to safety through the snows.
“We were freezing,” recalled one of those who made the trek, “heavy snow and we were still in and out of the forest. As soon as we exited the woods I saw a crossroads and a bunker of Russian soldiers. A woman soldier comes out, puts on her glasses and says, “Don’t run! Don’t Run.You’vebeensaved, you’re safe now. And that was it. That’s how it finished”
It was November 7, 1942. Almost one-third of them had perished along the way. And as they were led through the Red Army lines—no doubt to the astonished glances of soldiers who couldn’t figure out how scores of women and children had appeared out of nowhere—they could hear the sound of the German artillery bombardment. But at least for the moment no one was aiming at them. “We had no more strength left,” recalled one of the refugees. “Drunk with happiness we fell asleep.”
At least at first, however, the Soviets did not treat them as friends but as suspected spies. The first night, they were put up in the homes of local people in Talapietz. Then they were interrogated by the NKVD, imprisoned for three days in rooms with barred windows, given no food, and all their possessions down to their belts were taken away. The secret police were suspicious that they had no identity documents. Moscow radioed them that all was as expected. . The 218 survivors were set free at last.
Yet even now they were not yet quite safe. As the refugees waited in three groups to be shipped east, the Germans bombed the town and several more were killed. Little Leon, seeking some sense of security, ran ceaselessly between his parents, being one of the few who still had two of them.
At last, the young men were sent off to be enlisted in the army; the rest boarded a freight train. As the train rolled jolting from the station, the sound of motors came down from above. A moment later, German planes bombed the tracks and buzzed the train but no hits were scored, no one was hit. As the train headed east, the sound of explosions was heard through the night.
For many days and hundreds of miles their journey continued deep into the Soviet Union, leaving fighting and death behind, all the way to Kazakstan, near Tashkent. There was plenty of time to talk and wonder what their destinations, and futures, would be like. Their culinary imaginations had shrunk from privations to the point that, dwelling on possible luxuries, one of the main questions was, “Do they have potatoes in Kazachstan?” Even that they were to be denied. The discouraging answer was “no.”
Too hot in the closed-in, overcrowded boxcars, too tired, and perhaps too desirous not to leave behind the potato-growing regions of this world, people got off at this station or that one. For some unknowable reasons, several families from Dolhinov who ould take no more of the rocking cars and grinding wheels descended into the little town of Sorozink, a place meaning nothing to them. Sitting there in the station they tried to decide what to do next.
Seeing the exhausted group on the platform, a woman living in the town named Shifra Gordon was passing by, astonished to see some fellow stranger Jews there. She approached and asked “Where are you from?”
Dolhinov was a small town, who’d heard of it? Jewish immigrants entering America or just travelling usually gave their previous address as the largest nearby city. And so one woman answered by saying, “Vilna.” But not content with that response, another interrupted, “No, from Dolhinov”
Gordon was shocked. She was from Dolhinov herself, having been one of several young Jewish Communists who had run off to the USSR in the 1930s and having no contact with the town for years.
“Wait here!” she said, “Wait here! I’m from Dolhinov and there’s another man from Dolhinov, too, Chaim Brunstein, working as a dentistry technician in Sorozink.”
“Chaim Brunstein!” said the refugees. “His wife, Chana, Chana Kuzinitz by birth, is on that train that just left the station!”
The fact that refugees from Dolhinov ran into Shifra Gordon in the middle of Siberia was remarkable enough. And what was Brunstein doing there? Drafted into the Polish army when the Germans invaded, Chaim’s unit retreated east until captured by the Red Army. They were taken to Katyn where officers were separated out and murdered. The Soviets told the enlisted men that they were free but then dragged them off to work in Soviet coal mines. Marched east again by the Soviet guards on their retreat from the Germans, Chaim was finally allowed to go to work as a dentist, living in the town with two other Dolhinov Jews who’d been released.
Gordon ran off, found the startled Brunstein, explained the situation in an explosion of syllables, and they ran back together breathless to the station. The train with his family was long gone. He asked the station master the train’s number and then ran off again. Finding his boss, the clinic manager, Brunstein explained the situation and was given a travel pass on the pretext that he was going to a dental course in Tashkent. For five days, with little sleep, he raced after his family.
And so it was that at 2 am in a little town on the Russian steppes, despite the efforts of Hitler and Stalin, Chaim Brunstein found a train standing in the station.
On board, Rafael “Fula” Sosensky was trying to figure out some way to keep his sleeping children warm when he heard knocking from outside. He slid open the door, looked out, and saw a man he didn’t recognize.
The man shouted at him: “Don’t you recognize me Fula? I have been chasing your train for five days” He realized it was his friend, Chaim Brunstein.
Sosensky let in Brunstein, leading him to where his family was sleeping on the dusty floor. “Wake up! Wake up!” he told them. It’s your father, Chaim!” One of the daughters refused, muttering, “It must be a dream.” But it wasn’t. And they did. It was as close to being a miracle as a Jew could hope for in Europe during that terrible year 1942.
There were just a few more miracles left, enough to save at least two of those left behind by the march—one of them six years old, the other well into her seventies. The problem was that for Dolhinov there were only about 300 miracles and 4000 tragedies.
Still, there were so few good outcomes that each one must be counted. Chaim Grosbein, a distant cousin of mine on my mother’s side, was six years old in 1942, when his entire family was wiped out in the Second Action. Polish neighbors pointed out their hiding place to the Germans and a soldier threw in a hand grenade. Sitting in the far corner by himself, Chaim survived and after the massacre was rescued by the family’s other neighbors, my Rubin cousins.
He was taken by them to the forest with the partisans, and then on the march, where he was wounded and separated during one of the German attacks. All alone in the middle of the woods, he somehow managed to survive for some weeks—sometimes by stealing food farmers had put out for their livestock–before finally being rescued by other Soviet partisans. After the war, he was sent to a Soviet orphanage where he grew up, later joined the Red Army, and discovered his identity.
At the other end of the life cycle, Briana Katz survived the massacres in Dolhinov and escaped to be hidden by a Christian woman peasant in the village of Miltzia. After staying there some months, the woman asked her to leave and she found fellow Jews from Dolhinov in the family camp. During the first German attack, she was wounded, could not go on, and was hidden in the bushes with hope the Germans wouldn’t find her, but without any doubt that she would soon be dead of natural causes.
Katz was clearly a woman of great spirit and resolve. After a few days, one of the People’s Avengers scouts found her. Avraham Friedman and Yigal Segalchik, who knew her from Dolhinov, rushed to the scene, cleaned the bullet wound in her leg, and cared for her. Katz told them, “If you want to keep me alive and save me, you must return me to the farmer in Miltzia.” They carried her there in a wagon, telling the farmwoman to take care of her. Segalchik recounted, “The farmwoman made the sign of the cross and swore she would do her best.”
A month later, the two partisans returned and found her able to walk. They returned her to the base and made her a cook for the unit. Thus, she spent the war. It is said that Briana Katz’s triumphant, horseback entrance into Dolhinov with the partisans after its liberation was one of the most inspiring sights those present had ever seen. Thereafter she went up to the Land of Israel where she died at a very old age in a kibbutz among her children, 20 grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
When their march d ended, the survivors had said goodbye to Kisilev trying to find the proper words of gratitude. None of them ever saw him again. But they wrote a letter with everyone’s name on it and sent it to Ponomorov, the partisan commander-in-chief, praising Kisilev and asking that he be rewarded for his deeds. For once in its history, the Stalinist dictatorship actually listened to the voice of the people. On January 14, 1943, the partisan headquarters awarded Kisilev and his soldiers a small financial prize and also the highest honor the Soviet Union could bestow, Hero of the Soviet Union.
But this being the real world, where good is so often not treated with good or evil with punishment, the plane carrying the medal was shot down and Kisilev never received it. And immediately after the war, he had to write a series of letters to the army to prove that he indeed had led the march, in the face of an imposter who hadn’t even been there but who claimed credit for it.
Still, he did enjoy a happy life. He returned to active military duty, survived the war, married the scout, and had a nice career working in the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Trade. He died in 1974. Kisilov’s daughter recounted that he’d only mentioned the experience once, to say that he wondered what had happened to all those people he saved.
When we were talking about Kisilov’s story one day, Leon turned to me and said, “It reminds me of what Jewish tradition says: If you save the life of one person, it’s as if you saved an entire world. Consider how much Kisilov did, considering the number of people alive today who were descended from those surviving that trek!”