Children of Dolhinov: Our Ancestors and Ourselves » Chapter 8-The People's Avengers Take Revenge
THE PEOPLE’S AVENGERS TAKE REVENGE
“I will now praise devoted men,
our fathers, of every generation;
whom the Most High assigned great glory,
majesty, from days of old….
their memory will endure forever,
their faithfulness will not be blotted out….
Their bodies are laid away in peace,
their name lives on, age to age;
the assembly recounts their wisdom,
the congregation rehearses their praise.”
–Ecclesiasticus 44:1, 7-15
On the moonless night of October 17, 1942, the 34-year-old Yigal Segalchik, recently escaped from Dolhinov and now a soldier of the People’s Avengers brigade, set off for the first attack on the railroad just north of his home town. When he’d heard about the demolition teams being organized to sabotage the German supply trains, Segalchik had insisted on joining the operation. Timchuk had smiled at his enthusiasm and agreed.
Sigalchik was a huge, strong man. Born in 1908, he was much older and more mature than the young partisans in the ranks. He had been earning his own bread since the age of 14, when his father died. His brother and two sisters had gone to the land of Israel in the 1930s. But like many big men, he was shy. He had courted and married his wife at the age of 30, ancient by local standards, and when he had gone to the parents to ask her hand in marriage, he had perspired so freely and been so visibly nervous that they had at first wanted to turn him down. Yet if Sigalchik was a sheep in the parlor, he would be a veritable lion in the forests of Belarus.
“Choose three men you trust to go with you,” Timchuk had said, and he took with him Blechmann; Mikhail Friedman, a cousin of Avraham; and a Russian named Kolke Doroshniko. They left camp with their commander’s hurried good luck wave, carrying five pounds of TNT, a long fuse, and detonators. At 10 PM they reached the tracks. In the night’s stillness, the metallic click-clack sound of turning wheels on rails signaled that a train had just passed. The sound of reinforcements and supplies heading for the German frontline slowly diminished toward the northeast, in the direction of far-off Moscow.
Quickly, they followed instructions to the letter. Explosives were shoved under the right-hand rail, pushed down between two wood ties. The detonator was attached. They jogged backward for fifty yards unrolling fuse as they went, careful to stay close enough to the tracks to ensure it would work. Then they threw themselves down on the ground and waited.
Not that they had to wait long. In a few minutes there was a screeching sound in the up-to-then silent night, a grinding that set nerves on edge, louder and louder. How many trains there were now on this once-quiet line in the midst of nowhere, reflecting the desperate life-and-death battle of German troops at the front, hard-pressed by the Soviets now battling back to hold Moscow and Stalingrad. Here, four men waged a war which straight up that ribbon of steel was being fought by 400,000.
At last, the men saw a locomotive headlight, made hazy by the night air. Steady! Steady! When the approaching train reached the precise point they’d agreed on in advance, Segalchik pulled the fuse hard and they all turned and ran. The explosion was astonishingly loud; the earth shook. The massive locomotive leaped into the air, off the tracks and plowing into the ground. Steel ribbons were lifted, twisted, writhing into the air. Momentum carried the cars forward, smashing and bending, falling over like wounded dinosaurs. Then came secondary explosions from the cargo of ammunition set alight, punctuated by the cries of the wounded, shouted commands.
Too few to challenge the train’s surviving armed guards, who began firing wildly in all directions, the partisans kept running, not even daring to look back. They didn’t stop for three miles until panting they came to the outskirts of a village where a peasant, dressed in worn homespun clothes, was waiting to hide them in his hut. Once inside, the silent men let out their excitement, happy at both succeeding and getting away. They couldn’t sleep, playing the experience over and over in their minds and voices.
First thing in the morning, the peasant gave them some bread, cheese and onions then slogged the three miles back to see what had happened. Tense, the men sat on homemade wooden chairs. Now nervousness returned as their host didn’t. The sun arched across the sky, over the hut, the railroad, their distant camp, and finally down over the far horizon. What could have gone wrong? Had their host been arrested, interrogated, given them away? At that very moment were German units racing toward them to surround the hut and machinegun them?
But finally the man returned with a satisfied expression. They gathered around as he told his tale. The train had been destroyed; rails crumpled; all traffic stopped along the line. Several German soldiers guarding it were dead.
German troops had sealed off the area until two work trains arrived to undo the damage. They grabbed every available peasant, including the saboteurs’ host, to clean up the debris. Within fourteen hours the wreckage had been repaired. Their success was merely a small interruption, yet it was still sweet for those who’d been helpless so long, held in contempt by Germans, neighbors, and partisan comrades alike.
Each action was tiny, often seemingly futile. But such attacks multiplied by dozens weakened the German frontline army enough to help the Soviets push them back and finally achieve victory.
And there were some victories, albeit heartbreakingly small ones, to be won by Dolhinov Jews themselves for their own people. Soon thereafter, Segalchik and Michael Friedman, crossed the railroad line again, careful to do so more than two miles away from the earlier attack. Now the Germans were guarding the railroad better. As the two men crouched in the darkness they heard two guards shouting to each other. While knowing the enemy was so close was unnerving, it also told the partisans precisely where the guards were—and weren’t. The two partisans slipped between them.
Once clear of the German outposts, they took the empty Dokshitz-Gleboki road to a farm owned by a Pole, Yashka Patzvitch, a trusted friend of Friedman and partisan supporter. In the midst of night, they knocked on the door, rousing the startled farmer. Never before had he seen Jews carrying guns, two things that simply didn’t go together in his experience. But he quickly accepted the notion, let them in to sit at his table, and fed them a big meal of fresh bread, fruit, hot soup, and cooked potatoes, the best dinner they’d had in two years.
The visitors wasted no time on small talk. They asked him to go into Gleboki, a small town about 30 miles north of Dolhinov, the next day and give a message to Friedman’s two brothers and other relatives in the ghetto there. The farmer agreed, “I often visit the town,” he explained, “and even see your brothers.” So far, the Germans were letting them work, having concentrated there the last of the Jews—those with skills they needed–from other towns. Then the man walked them to his son’s house a few steps away to stay the night.
But Friedman didn’t sleep. Instead, he wrote a letter to his relatives, trying to pour all his persuasiveness into it.
“Don’t stay in Gleboki any longer,” he warned, “all the Jews in other towns have been wiped out. You are doomed to death at any moment….Don’t waste any time. Come to us, to the fighting partisans. We have weapons and many dead Germans to our credit. We are waiting for you!”
Friedman and Segalchik stayed impatiently in their small hiding place all the next day, hoping for Patzvitch’s return. At 3 p.m. Patzvitch entered with a letter from Friedman’s brother and uncle saying only: “We will arrive at midnight.” And they did. Quietly, they snuck through a weak point in the ghetto fence. The Germans know that the best way of keeping the Jews confined isn’t their fear of being shot at the fence but rather the hunger, bandits, and lack of help that were all around them. Failure to escape and be able to survive had made many return defeated and many more, who saw what had happened, not try running away at all.
A direct personal appeal from a relative, though, couldn’t be ignored. The three men had a warm reunion, the kind experienced by people amazed to find each other alive. Rumors about the attack on the railroad had reached the town, but when the two partisans said they’d done the deed, their visitors refused to believe it. The idea of Jews blowing up things and fighting a war was as strange to them as it had been to their Polish host. Segalchik had to pull the fuse and a detonator out of his pack and wave them in front of their eyes to convince them.
Having proved their credentials, the partisans urged them to form a group of young people, get weapons in any way possible, escape from the ghetto, and join the partisans. Segalchik asked that they talk to all the Dolginov people in town, including his own cousin, Yitzhak Koton, a giant of a man who would make a great fighter and whose father—like so many other Dolhinov Jews—had also worked with Timchuk at the fox farm.
But Friedman’s uncle was horrified by the idea. He had a wife and two children. “I can’t either take them into the forest to face the harsh winter or leave them behind,” he insisted. Nor did he believe that flight was their only chance of survival. Many Jews thought the Germans would soon be defeated and it was best to be cautious and outlast their presence. His view, courageous in its own way, nevertheless turned reality backwards. To leave, he thought, meant certain death at least for his loved ones. It would be a selfish act on his part. But to stay would give some chance of survival. The risks were real but they didn’t understand their only choice was between taking a huge risk and not surviving at all.
Still, the two men promised to help by recruiting others, especially those without dependents, who could leave more easily and with fewer guilt feelings. They returned to the ghetto before dawn.
Before the sun rose the follwing day, Segalchik and Friedman came to the planned meeting place at a crossroads, then hid there until nightfall. Sure enough, as agreed, 14 people, including 4 women, showed up precisely at midnight.
One of them was 17-year-old Levi Koton of Dolhinov. But what, you might ask, was he doing in Glebokie? Like other young people in Dolhinov he’d pondered whether it was morally permissible to abandon his parents and younger siblings in such dangerous times. Strong family relations and religious training made that question paramount for them. But urged by his mother to save himself, Koton snuck out of the house one night in April 1942 without saying good-bye to his parents.
For a week, he and a friend wandered the forests finding no aid. Conscious-stricken by having left behind his family, he returned home only to find they had all been killed in the second massacre. Koton had helped to collect the dead, find wagons, and bury them. Then he met up with two young local Communists who’d successfully hidden in Dolhinov from the Germans for nine months. Together with another girl, the four of them walked the 40 miles to Glebokie by night.
Koton joined his brother Isser there. Two months later, Isser and his family were all killed and with no close family to consider any more, Koton was ready to return to the forest and make a second try at fighting for his life.
This group of Jews from Glebokie brought with them the pitiful, yet still impressive under the circumstances, arsenal of three old rifles, one with no stock; another lacking a gunsight. But it was enough to get them admitted to a partisan unit, at least one run by more accommodating fellow Jews.
Travelling at night, knowing they might be spotted or betrayed at any moment, the group finally arrived in a swampy area, the People’s Avengers’ camp. The Germans and their allies cannot find them but the two partisans know precisely where to go. The unit has finally built up enough fighters and weapons to begin operations. Gathered there are more than 150 armed men, 25 of them Jewish. Their clothes are rags, some have to wear captured German army or police uniforms, but morale is high and they are fairly well-equipped.
But there’s also a sequel to this story. Among those who had escaped from the Glebokie ghetto and joined the partisans were two brothers, Yerucham and Mottel Lederman. The Germans told their father, a leading citizen in the town who had been pressed into heading the Judenrat, that unless his sons returned they would kill many Jews there. So their father sent them a note at Patzvitch’s telling them that they had to come home. At the same time, several partisans, including the Lederman brothers, were urging another trip to the town to bring out more Jewish recruits. The four men, including Friedman, received their commander’s approval, made the journey safely, and stopped off again at Patzvitch’s house. The contact man gave the brothers their father’s letter. Two days later, the four partisans entered the ghetto.
Weeks passed and no word came. The People’s Avengers eventually heard, however, that the Lederman brothers had been allowed back into the ghetto by the Germans, without their two companions, in exchange for turning in their weapons. Apparently, they heeded their father’s plea. The Germans, of course, broke their promise to let them be and ten days later came to arrest the father and two brothers. The father and Yerucham were killed; Motel escaped and went to another partisan unit. And of course, eventually the ghetto of Glebokie was wiped out by the Germans.
But what had become of Friedman and the other soldier? Searching for some answer, People’s Avengers’ scouts discovered their bodies hidden by the road into town. They were still wearing their boots and leather jackets. The Germans would have had no reason to leave them like that. The conclusion was that the Lederman brothers had killed them to get away in order to try to save their own family, perhaps after Freedman sought to stop such foolhardy behavior. How desperate and misguided could people become under such pressures. The brothers’ crime had availed them not, nor any of their people.
The Germans and their allies had left the Jews no choice but to fight for their own lives. Yet, tragically, understanding this fact and having the ability to do so came too late for all but a few.
There wasn’t a single Jew left in Dolhinov by then, but it was only the start of their war with the Nazis. Dozens would fight in the Peoples’ Avengers’ ranks; several hundred would support the unit as workers in its camps. An estimated 8465 Jews participated in the partisan movement or urban resistance in Byelorus during the war, of whom about 1000 died. Ultimately, doing so was the only way to survive.
Until the summer of 1942, though, when it was already too late for most Jews, the partisans were still weak, uncoordinated, and poorly armed. When the People’s Avengers began in September 1941, it had only eight soldiers, Timchuk managed to send another 200 from Minsk and brought just 13 more with him when he himself went to the forest in December 1941. Many of these recruits were rank-and-file Soviet Communist party members from Minsk with no military experience. Moreover, the weather was against them. It was a particularly harsh winter, and as if that weren’t enough they lacked proper winter clothing—which led to injuries from frostbite–and didn’t know well the area where they were operating.
Until supplies started arriving by airdrop, the main ways of getting weapons was to hunt for those left behind on battlefields or abandoned by Soviet soldiers running away during the initial German attack. Peasants had already mined these sites and had guns for sale, but often at very high prices.
At the start, these newly hatched partisans were so desperate for weapons and ammunition that one of their initial successes came when a small group of partisans spotted some German soldiers in a car pull up to a river, undress, and go swimming, leaving uniforms and weapons on the bank. Two partisans crept up, grabbed everything, and ran off. The Germans started shouting until one of the Russians fired a couple of rounds at them with one of their own guns, at which point they ran naked from the water, jumped in the car and drove off, tires screeching.
It was the first time the refugees and escaped prisoners had been able to laugh at the Germans. This was early in the fighting. If the same thing happened a year later, or if the partisans had been Jews, I have no doubt the partisans would have shot them dead. But then a year later, the Germans wouldn’t have gone swimming without leaving someone on guard duty.
But there was little to laugh about, especially in those early days. German agents infiltrated the unit. In February 1942, well-informed about the location and details of its main base, the Germans launched a successful surprise attack, killing many partisans and scattering the rest. Still, the People’s Avenger’s continue to grow, joined by soldiers who’d evaded capture or escaped prisoner camps; local Byelorussian volunteers, Jews escaping from ghettos; and smaller units that had formed in the area. Later, the Soviets infiltrate trained soldiers through the German lines to join them. By May 1942 when he joined the unit, Avraham Friedman estimated that it had a total of 450 soldiers altogether.
Of course, Soviet partisans themselves were ultimately serving a ruthless dictatorship, and one which intended to seize eastern Poland for itself but this meant little as long as the fight was being directed against the Germans. And as long as that was so, Jews had to seek protection and fight in self-defense, indifferent to such longer-range concerns. Their longer-term prospect for staying alive at all was a doubtful proposition.
That the Lenin and For Soviet Belarus brigades were 20 percent, and the Stalin Brigade 10 percent, Jewish did not reflect ideology but survival needs. This was one more example of the classic Jewish bind, forced to take sides in a quarrel not their own and in which neither party had their interest at heart. They had to align with the Soviets because no one else would have them. They saw the Russians as liberators from Germany, not Poland. In general, their personal views remained or became Zionist from wariness and weariness at so often being caught in this trap.
Jews also knew that while the Soviet partisans were their only hope it was a badly flawed one. Undersupplied partisans, trying to survive themselves, considered non-combatant Jews—older men, women, children, and even adult men without weapons–as a burden. Moreover, there was a high level of antisemitism among the troops. With their propaganda promoting Russian nationalism in what was called the Great Patriotic War, the Soviets actually enhanced anti-Jewish feelings in their own ranks, including among Communists, regime officials, and those who grew up under the Soviet system.
Precisely because so many Jews had been murdered, partisans sometimes suspected survivors of being alive only because they were German agents. In a blend of medieval and modern antisemitism, there were also rumors rife among the fighters that Jewish refugees might poison their food or water. Polish partisan units, with few exceptions, were even more hostile to Jews.
Jewish partisans knew all this and could never be sure—and that sometimes did happen—whether Christian comrades would shoot them in the back. It was easy to give way to despair. One Jewish partisan later wrote:
“More than once we told ourselves that all efforts were in vain. We thought that no Jews would remain until victory, and that we too would be betrayed by our brothers in arms. But the desire for revenge on the Germans was stronger than anything else, and it encouraged us and strengthened our faith that not all was lost. Only due to that were we able to carry on.”
If commanders criticized or punished such behavior, it was held in check but there are many cases of partisans robbing and murdering Jewish refugees or even fellow partisans who were Jews. Even when Jews were accepted into units they were often treated as second-class members, more likely to be punished, expelled, or disarmed.
Without a commanders’ support, for even armed Jewish partisans to contest such treatment would risk their own lives. Anyone speaking out against antisemitism could be called a nationalist and ethnic chauvinist for criticizing other partisans’ nationalism and chauvinism. When a Jewish partisan in the Stalin brigade, himself a veteran Communist, protested when his unit turned away a group of Jewish refugee women, making their deaths inevitable, he was court-martialed and shot as a “Jewish nationalist.”
Temporarily separated from his unit in May 1942 after a failed ambush against a German convoy on the road just west of Dolhinov, Littman Mor, member of the People’s Revenge partisan brigade, thought, “A partisan detached from his regiment was in a bad situation. My situation as a Jew was even sevenfold worse. A gentile partisan could find shelter in some village, but for a Jew there was no chance for survival.”
Back with his squad, Mor heard his comrades grumble that neither of the two Jews in the unit ever seemed to get wounded, as if this were a mark of cowardice. One fellow soldier grumbled to Mor about the war, “It’s all because of you. It is you that the Germans are looking for.” An hour later, a force of Germans and militia coming from Dolhinov attacked the unit and seven partisans were wounded, one of them the man who’d complained to him. Now, Mor had to help carry that man all night, on an improvised stretcher of belts and branches, through German lines.
Understandably, Jews felt safest—and often only were safe—with units in whose ranks served a high proportion of Jewish soldiers. The best-known, and one of the few Jewish majority units, was that led by Tuvia Belsky of Novogrudok and his brothers. The Belsky unit originated the idea of “family camps,” where partisans defended noncombatant Jewish refugees who gave them useful support, everything from cleaning and repairing clothing, weapons, and shoes; to running medical clinics for the wounded and ill; and even in some places growing crops. Belsky’s force also pioneered in staging rescues from the ghettos, enough to save hundreds of lives but too late and too little to save thousands.
But wise partisan officers also understood the Jewish soldiers’ special value to their units. They know the area well and have contacts with surviving Jewish or non-Jewish friends. Jewish partisans are often especially energetic and brave precisely because they want revenge against the Germans and know they must prove themselves. Besides, they have the greatest incentive of all for a soldier: for them, the choice is not to fight and perhaps die, but to fight or definitely die.
Since the partisans were also soldiers of Stalin, they need fear not only their enemy in battle but also the dreaded dictator’s own apparatus of repression. The key link between Kremlin and the men on the battlefield was Colonel Stanislav Vaupshasov of the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police.
Forty-three years old in 1942, he had enjoyed a truly remarkable career. Born in the Lithuanian village of Gruzdjay, he had joined the Red Army just after the 1917 Communist revolution, combining military work with espionage. During and after the Polish-Soviet war, he’d worked between 1920 and 1924 as an underground revolutionary in the Dolhinov area, daily risking his life. Returning to the USSR, he had spent 13 years in intelligence, then was sent as an advisor to the Republican forces in the 1937-1939 Spanish Civil War.
Stalin liquidated most of the Soviet agents who’d been in Spain, but Vaupshasov had somehow survived and was admitted to the Communist party in 1940. He was sent back to Belarus to oversee the anti-German resistance and help run the local underground Communist party as a Central Committee member. He did well enough to receive four Orders of Lenin and to become a Hero of the Soviet Union, the country’s highest honor, in 1944.
Clearly, he was not a man to be trifled with and he’d taken a special interest in the largest partisan group under his authority from the moment he arrived around New Year’s Day of 1942. Fortunately for Major Vasily Trofimovich Voronyansky, a professional Red Army officer who commanded the unit, and Ivan Mitveivitch Timchuk, its political commissar, he was favorably impressed with their work.
The 150 partisans were fond enough of Voronyansky to call him Uncle Vasya and themselves Uncle Vasya’s boys.
“Dyadya Vasya, not a bad name,” Vaupshashov chuckled, “Nice, even homey. But what about thinking up a new one? Something more aggressive.” He was the man whose suggestions you followed lest you get a bullet in the head or a shovel job in Siberia.
“What do you suggest?” shuddered Timchuk.
“We already have a group called `People’s Struggle.’ You can become the ‘People’s Avengers.’”
“That’s also a nice name,” answered Voronyansky.
“Appropriate,” agreed Timchuk. The fact that Timchuk—a man of outstanding courage and someone Vaupshashov liked—trembled in his presence was recorded by Vaupshashov himself, who apparently enjoyed his fearsome effect on people.
By accident, the name was perfect for the non-Jewish unit most friendly to Jews, for who had more need and reason for revenge than they?
Voronyansky, a regular army officer who’d been trapped behind German lines and helped set up the unit, seems to have been more of a technician responsible only for directing battlefield tactics. Timchuk, who combined considerable regular army experience with high status in the Communist party, seems to have been the real commander. From December 1942 to September 1943, he’d also head the underground party in a large area of Belarus.
Yet unlike most party bosses, Timchuk was never arrogant, greedy, or even cynical, never misused his power for ego or personal gain. He constantly reported corruption and incompetent commanders. And unlike Vaupshasov, Timchuk didn’t get his kicks out of intimidating subordinates. He was a real believing, idealistic Communist. Certainly not handsome enough to be on a poster, he was nevertheless the self-sacrificing, modest kind of person who supposedly was the model of all a Soviet Communist should be.
Ironically, Timchuk looked more like a sandy-haired priest than a Communist commissar and military hero. He had a weak chin and his features seemed concentrated around his eyes, low full eyebrows, a Slavic nose so high as to lack a bridge, and he had a tiny moustache above the center of his upper lip. His receding hair made half his face seem to be forehead, Vaupshashov described this unusual collection of features as, “A big wise face and clever, little eyes.”
Avraham Friedman of Dolhinov, Michael’s cousin, is Timchuk’s deputy, and Timchuk is particularly sympathetic toward Jews. Friedman who understandably worshipped his commander, wrote:
“He was very warm and loving and caring, and his warmth would be spread all around him. He was a good listener and quickly understood the motivations of people he met, and he had good analytical skills. First and foremost, the soldiers under him and the people above him respected him as a friend, not just a leader and I in my heart will always be filled with warmth and admiration for this man, Timchuk and all his missions to save people. Many people owe their lives to him.”
This was especially true for many Jews, who he was not only willing to accept into his unit but also to make officers. The regimental doctor is Major Stcheglow, a Jew from Minsk, and its other doctor is Kotler from Dolhinov. Among its members, aside from the five Friedman brothers and several more cousins, were other Dolhinov Jews, with Avram Klorman, Yakov Ruderman, and Yigal Segalchik prominent among them.
This roster ensures the unit is not antisemitic, but that doesn’t stop some of its soldiers and officers from mocking Jews or insisting they are not real fighters. Only Timchuk, a strict commander who fought against antisemitism, keeps them in line, ensuring the liberators don’t murder or rob their supposed flock.
Indeed, even in the Avengers, the 33-year-old Shraga Solominski of Lida recalled, only by showing exemplary courage could the Jewish partisans try to refute:
“The libelous stories that were generally accepted, that Jews do not want to fight and that they avoid every military operation….In our presence no one dared badmouth the Jews. But the libelous stories did not decrease and despite our position in the regiment we felt isolated and orphaned. We were, after all, the sole survivors of each family….We knew that all that we had was gone forever. Although the will for revenge beat in our hearts and we proved our courage, it didn’t have the ability to disseminate the atmosphere of suspicion and hatred.
“A deadly danger always accompanied the Jewish partisans. A Jewish warrior always needed to take double precaution: he needed to watch out not only for the Germans but also for the guns of his partisan friends who wanted to kill him. Dozens and hundreds of Jewish partisans were killed by their brothers in arms. It was an atmosphere of indifference to the lives of Jews, and most of the officers were also part of the anti-Semitic persecutions. This was due in large part to German propaganda that consistently declared that the war had erupted because of the Jews and that they were to blame for it. Even if the top officers wished it, they could not stop the murderous persecution of the Jews.”
Among the Avengers a special factor usually helped maintain strict discipline, the presence of the menacing secret policeman, Vaupshasov and his team. Yet his being in camp also means the unit enjoys Moscow’s special favor. When it makes a request, attention is paid.
One morning at sunrise, just a week after Vaupshasov’s arrival in early January 1942, he was awakened by the radio operator, Glushkov, shouting so excitedly that he can’t get out all his words::
“Moscow has just informed….This night….Plane comes to us!”
Vaupshasov ordered, “Settle down, comrade!” He took the scrap of paper and read the message from Comrade Grigory in headquarters quickly. But Vapshasov was excited also. Now their battle could really begin. Quickly, he got dressed hurriedly and raced out of his tent. Everyone was still asleep. He headed straight for Voronyansky’s tent. The commander was sleeping with his hand under the head, looking so peaceful and untroubled that even the iron-hard Vapshasov felt bad at awakening him.
Still, there was not a moment to lose in preparing, he shook Voronyansky:
“Vasily! Wakey! Good morning, Forest War Dog!.” Voronyansky snapped awake and took the message from the colonel’s hand. He smiled and said, “Good morning, Stanislav! You see, Moscow remembers us!” Then he leaped out of bed and dressed, as the two men discussed what to do next.
Quickly, they rounded up a group of partisans and NKVD men which would hurry to the village of Kreschanka to build a landing area. Vaupshasov gave his orders: “Be ready to leave in half an hour. Take ammunition and food for 2 days.” The colonel was pleased with their quick response. The intelligence men scouted ahead as Vaupshasov, Voronyansky, and Timchuk led a group of 40 soldiers and 6 horses.
After a long but quick march, by noon they approached the village. Their peasant informants said no Germans were in the area. They’d chosen the drop zone carefully and cleverly as being at a place easy to guard and defend. On three sides it was surrounded by impassable swamps, on the fourth by a thick forest. A squad was sent off a mile away into the forest to ambush any Germans; another squad went into the village to make sure no one left to warn the enemy.
“Perfect!” exclaimed Vaupshasov’s chief of staff, Captain Lunkov, “There are no Germans in the surrounding area. We’ll put up our Moscow guests very nicely!”
In the evening, a milk-white fog enveloped the area. Bottles filled with kerosene, set out in the shape of an envelope, as headquarters had specified, to signal the plane could drop supplies. The soldiers awaited only Vaupshasov’s order to set them alight.
Glushkov turned on his radio and put on earphones. After a half-hour, he received the message, decoded it and handed it to the colonel, “Are you ready to receive the plane? Gregory.”
Vaupshasov wrote a reply: “We are ready and waiting for you.” Glushkov put it into code and sent it. Everyone froze, tense, listening.
At midnight they heard airplane engines. Soldiers and officers exclaimed simultaneously, “Ours!”
“Light the fires!” ordered Vaupshasov. Men ran to do so. Immediately, the pilot saw the drop zone and started his descent, swung around and held his course right over their heads. Partisans enthusiastically pulled off their caps and waved them vigorously. Small white parachutes blossomed from the plane’s rear door. After his pass, the pilot waggled his wings and flew back to the east.
One by one, the 12 cargo chutes landed. Even before they hit the ground, soldiers had doused the fires and then quickly cut the bags free. Two were loaded on each horse. After the euphoria of the successful airdrop the trip back to camp was tense, soldiers listening at every moment for the sound of German trucks or footsteps. They carefully circuited Kraysk with its German garrison.
By the time they got back to camp it was the middle of the night but not a single partisan was sleeping. As the convoy came in there was an excited murmur of greetings, and men rushed to reach out and touch each bag. Lunkov found a delivery list in one and they passed it around to increasing excitement: 300 pounds of explosive, automatic weapons, boxes of ammunition, extra radio batteries, tobacco, grenades, and even the latest newspapers! “Moscow,” Vaupshasov concluded with satisfaction, “had sent us everything we needed.”
Despite setbacks, the partisan forces steadily developed. On June 17, 1942, Vaupshasov organized a conference of officers from different units in the People’s Avengers camp, and by September, the undisciplined bands had been reorganized into a full-fledged guerrilla force with propaganda, intelligence, communication, supply, medical, and even an aviation section. Its chief back in Moscow was P.K. Ponomarenko, who had been Communist party chief in Soviet-occupied eastern Poland before the German invasion.
They had began by attacking German supply lines, ambushing convoys and blowing up rail lines, or hitting small garrisons in towns, burning flour mills or other facilities used by the Germans. The Germans themselves began to go on the offensive against the partisans. But that’s also what the Red Army wanted: to tie down enemy forces far behind the front line. As a result, in the summer of 1942, the Germans had to keep 25 divisions on rear-area duty plus 30 independent regiments and 100 battalions of police.
July 15, 1942, was a sweltering day in the People’s Avengers camp. Vaupshasov, Voronyansky, and Timchuk were about to have lunch when, suddenly, the unit’s intelligence chief Vladimir Romanov rode hurriedly into camp. He blurted out that 25 trucks full of German soldiers, perhaps 500 men, had just arrived in the village of Valentinovo, observed but not fired on by the partisan scouts. They were obviously drawn to the area by the Soviet airdrops.
This was serious news as the Germans were approaching across the partisans’ escape route. To the unit’s back was the river Ilya that formed Dolhinov’s eastern border and had marked the prewar Polish-Soviet frontier. One officer was sent to get the whole camp mobilized; another to warn the neighboring partisan unit, Struggle, commanded by Sergey Dolhinov, a Byelorussian whose family carried the town name. Scouts were sent out with orders to watch the direction of the Germans but not fire. With both units plus a visiting Ukrainian platoon, Vaupshasov had only 278 men, another 100 or so were out on a mission.
Even worse news arrived by a runner coming from the scouts. Two convoys of SS units were advancing from the village. Did the Germans have informers who told them the camp’s location or were they just moving blindly toward a place where planes had been seen? The officers held a quick council of war.
Major Voronyansky, who took over command during battles, yelled: “Man the defenses!” The Ukrainians were put on the left flank, commanded by Lieutenant Tsigankov; with the People’s Avengers and NKVD men in the center, and the Struggle unit on the right. Just then, another runner arrived to report the Germans were heading straight toward the partisans. “Let them come as close as possible,” Voronyansky ordered, and messengers spread the word.
Nearer and nearer advanced the German soldiers from the partisans’ left, armed with both rifles and light machineguns, walking steadily forward in a long line. The partisans could see their new uniforms with swastikas on the sleeves. The partisans remained silent. Then they spotted the second enemy force approaching from the right. Voronyansky whispered to the colonel: “They plan to encircle us.” He shifted his forces, sending the elite NKVD troops to strengthen the left flank.
Now both German forces were just 25 yards away. Suddenly, Vorinyansky yelled: “For our Motherland! Fire! Get those fascist beasts!” Immediately, the partisan force erupted in gunfire, every rifle and machinegun opened up, and the Struggle unit’s mortar launcher fired at point-blank range.
Voronyansky’s next order was one the partisans weren’t used to hearing: “Don’t worry about ammunition!”
Clearly, the Germans were not expecting to fall into this trap. Their line stopped and wavered as holes were torn into it. “Fire!” Voronyansky shouted again. The smoke was so thick nothing could be seen, but when a wind cleared it off for a moment, the partisans saw a number of German dead and the rest hiding behind bushes and firing back.
Suddenly, guns on the right flank went silent. Vorinyansky was concerned, perhaps he never fully trusted the Ukrainians and thought they might change sides. But just then a messenger ran in from that unit, “We’re advancing to cut off the Germans from behind,” he said quickly, all in one breath, and ran back.
The Germans were now overcoming their shock and putting up a spirited fire, they crawled forward while the partisans tried to press themselves into the ground. Suddenly, again all went silent. The Germans had risen to their feet to charge. Voronyansky, who’d gone to check on the left flank, ran back as fast as he could to the command post, sweating profusely. “Let’s make things lively for them!” he shouted.
The Germans, firing as they ran, were only forty paces away. “Grenades!” yelled Voronyansky over the sound of battle. At that moment, Vaupshasov saw something behind the German advancing line: the Ukrainian partisans were in position. They hid behind pine trees and started shooting into the Germans’ backs. Panicked, the Nazis turned, just as the Avengers threw their grenades. With so much smoke in the air, nothing could be seen.
On the right flank, one of the captains stood up and shouted, “For the Motherland! Charge!” The Germans fell back, firing from behind any cover they could find. The battle raged for 90 minutes, and the Germans began firing flares. Vaupshasov pulled on Voronyansky’s sleeve: “They’re calling for reinforcements,” he said, pointing at the rockets.
“We better fall back,” the major replied, “What do you think?”
Just then, Captain Dolhinov arrived, covered with mud. “Do you have wounded?” he said through parched lips.
Voronyansky shook his head.
“Damn it! I have four.” Luckily they all could walk.
They agreed to drop back as more Germans would be arriving soon. Moving into the camp, they found four dead Germans near the kitchen where they had almost succeeded in infiltrating behind the partisan lines. The only man missing was the unit’s cook, Sapanov, who might have been killed before the skirmishers were wiped out.
Though the battle had gone well so far, they were in trouble. Behind them was the Ilya river’s muddy banks covered with thick nettles. They huddled around a map briefly. It was obvious they had no choice. Messengers were sent to warn units away from the camp on missions that they shouldn’t return but rather meet up in a forest near the village of Rudni. The sky was getting dark, covering the retreat.
With each step, the mud sucked down their shoes; their clothes, splashed with mud and water, became wet and heavy. Nettles collided with their faces and cut their hands. Dolhinov’s men led the way, followed by the NKVD hauling the wounded, next the Ukrainians and last the Avengers as rearguard. Finally, they got across the river and kept going for an hour when, exhausted, they halted to rest. There was no sign of pursuit.
“Quick, set up the radio,” Vaupshasov ordered. When all was ready he had the operator send Moscow an emergency message: “Today we can’t receive a plane. At the landing area we had a battle with Germans. No one is killed. We have a few wounded. Wait for further reports.”
An answer came in a few minutes: “Protect your forces. We won’t send any more planes until your request.” That night they regrouped in a thick forest just southwest of Dolhinov. The scattered forces arrived, even bringing in the cook, the only Peoples’ Avengers’ soldier wounded but who had survived the attack on his kitchen. Quickly, they sent out scouts to talk to the peasants, who reported the Germans were staying in the villages and not venturing out. One old man told them the Germans were claiming 100 partisans had been killed but no one believed them as there were plenty of German, but no partisan, bodies.
Once again, a military council was held, in the dark since they dared not light a fire. Voronyansky suggested that the next afternoon, when the Germans were still resting, then find a weak point and fight through the encirclement. They caught the Germans off-guard, then the partisan forces split to escape with the NKVD, Avengers, and Struggle units heading off in different directions. Later, the partisans claimed to have inflicted about 120 casualties on the Germans in the two battles, compared to almost no losses for themselves. While that tally seems an exaggeration, the fighting certainly ended with a clear partisan success.
Timchuk’s past connection with Dolhinov and the number of his soldiers from that town made his thoughts turn toward it repeatedly. Eidel Shinuk was one of those who’d worked with Timchuk at the fox farm and when the strong young man escaped the Dolhinov ghetto after the first massacre, Timchuk immediately took him into the unit. Eidel had studied to be a technician and had been outside Dolhinov when the Germans arrived that day.
Taking advantage of Eidel’s absence, his younger, 17-year-old brother David survived by pretending to be Eidel, whose job skills put him on the Germans’ no-kill list. Some Christians from the town complained that David was the son of a Soviet official and should be killed but since they didn’t speak German the soldiers ignored them.
Courageously, Eidel repeatedly went into Dolhinov on missions to obtain information from Maslovsky, the Polish policeman who was helping the partisans. A mission to get boots for the partisans took him to the town the night before the second massacre. At dawn, the ghetto was surrounded and Eidel was trapped. David hid in one place; Eidel concealed himself under a pile of firewood. A neighbor led the Germans to Eidel’s hiding place and they killed him on the spot. When David emerged after the massacre, all he could find was his brother’s decapitated head, his hat still on it. After burying what remained of his brother, David was among those who want to join the partisan unit his brother had served.
Two days later, in early May 1942, the People’s Avengers decided to attack Dolhinov itself. It was no mere matter of revenge but now with well-informed townspeople able to act as guides, this seemed to be a sensible choice for the unit’s first big operation. Avraham Friedman, his cousin Mitzia Friedman, and a few others were sent back into the town as scouts.
The best-informed surviving Jew there was Mulka Kuritsky, a skilled electrician spared by the Germans who frequently worked in the police station and army offices. The Friedmans met him that night at the safest place possible: the home of the friendly policeman, Maslovsky. There they sat over tea, Kuritsky drawing a precise map of the German headquarters with a list of weapons and the positions of the soldiers and police.
Friedman distracted Maslovsky so he wouldn’t realize the implications of Kuritsky’s labors. But Friedman had no desire to betray his old friend, who soon he might be shooting at otherwise. He urged Maslovsky to desert the police and join him in the forest. In the middle of the conversation there was a knock on the door. The three men froze.
But while Friedman and Kuritsky rushed to hide as best they could, Maslovsky answered the door. It was a messenger calling him urgently to report to the police station. He promised to follow quickly. Closing the front door, Maslovsky turned to his two guests who’d heard everything. Hurriedly, he promised Friedman that as soon as he’d finished at the station, he’d ride his bicycle into the forest to meet him, perhaps to join the partisans.
The two Jews left hurriedly; Maslovsky went off to his duties. Friedman waited for him a the rendez-vous as long as possible but Maslovsky didn’t arrive. The two friends never saw each other again. Friedman later attributed this interruption to an alert, that the Germans knew an attack was imminent, though not about Maslovsky’s spying activities.
For the 21 Jews from Dolhinov who participated in the attack on their own home town, it was—despite all that they’d been through—one of the strangest experiences of their lives. Here they were, returned as soldiers only 48 hours after helplessly fleeing for their lives, furtively pacing past the houses where they’d been born and lived, places they’d worked every day. Their dreams had been, at least partly, fulfilled. They were returning as liberators, but who could believe it all might have happened so fast?
At first the plan went well. The five platoons met a half-mile outside Dolhinov. At 11 pm they cut down the telephone poles. Each entered town at a different place, travelling down Kriviczi, Vileika, Dokshitz, Viliya, and Budslav streets. But the element of surprise was lost. Had the Germans heard their plans from spies, or merely heard the sound of partisans chopping down the telephone poles? More probably the latter, for while they organized a more effective defense than if they’d been taken by surprise, the Germans had certainly not organized a trap.
Moshe Forman and Sigalchik were assigned to the platoon whose objective was capturing the police station. The squad snuck into position and grenades were thrown through the windows, their explosions meant to kill the police inside. But when the partisans stormed in, they found the building empty. It was clear the police had left fast, as shown by hats, clothes, and shoes strewn over the floor. Left behind, however, was a treasure 14 good German rifles, including the one broken over Sigalchik’s head by a policeman beating him two weeks earlier. Among all the Dolhinov Jews acting as scouts, only Sigalchik was armed, and even he only had a pistol. They grabbed the guns and ran out.
The town was filled with gunfire. The police, including Maslovsky, warned ahead of time, had run to the German stronghold at the house of the Sadowsky family, headed by the town’s Polish doctor, who the Soviets had deported to Siberia. The 11-man German army communication’s unit combined with about 15 police was holding out there. Since they had automatic weapons, their little fortress was impregnable.
When the partisan platoon arrived to capture the house, the Germans had fired flares, lighting up the area, and opened fire. Units tried to attack the house but were beaten off, with three men being killed. Mistakenly thinking that the house had already been captured, Sigalchik’s over-eager platoon commander fell dead at Sigalchik’s feet along with the unit’s sniper. Since the partisans were already short on ammunition, a retreat was ordered.
The inexperienced partisans had failed due to poor organization and bad communications among units. They’d also learned that the element of surprise was all important and that they could not win without sufficient ammunition. On the positive side, they now had fourteen more rifles, two of which went to Sigalchik and Abraham Friedman. The 21 Dolhinov Jews who participated were all now officially inducted into the ranks of the People’s Avengers.
When the men reassembled far away after the battle, Voronyansky made a speech: “The enemy’s agents now know we’ve received weapons from Moscow and are going to launch an offensive against us,” he explained. “We must immediately disappear from this area. We’re not yet ready for full-scale battles with the enemy. But if we do encounter enemy forces, you must all listen to your officers and not retreat in panic. I am sure we’ll all work together as one brave unit, fighting alongside one another, shoulder to shoulder, until the last bullet.”
After pulling out of the Dolhinov area, reassembling, and resting, the People’s Avengers were ready for their next mission, aware now, however, that their strength lay in ambushes rather than frontal assaults to seize control of towns.
Sigalchik was assigned to a squad headed by Vlodia Kavilin, a Red Army officer who’d escaped a prisoner camp and formed his own guerrilla force before joining the People’s Avengers. He was a fearless and energetic fighter despite being a heavy drinker, which may be why he was given such a lowly position. Like his commander, Timchuk, though, Kavilin had reason to feel good about having Jewish soldiers in his unit. He’d only escaped the Germans with help from the Solominsky family of Ilya, one of whose sons now was fighting with the People’s Avengers.
A week later, Kavilin lined up the squad and checked their weapons. Then with no further ado they set off on a more modest mission, better attuned to the partisans’ capabilities. In a village there was a lumber mill worked by the German army. Big trucks came and went along the single road into the place. After a reconnaissance, the squad set up an ambush on a small hill. For two hours they waited tensely, hands burning from holding weapons tightly. Finally, at around 8 pm, they could hear the motors of some trucks which soon appeared, loaded with boards and with guards seated on the cargo.
The partisans open fire and killed the driver and guards before anyone had time to shoot back. A second truck came up behind, slowly, its motor’s sound having kept those aboard from hearing the gunfire. Seeing the other truck wrecked across the road, it screeched to a halt, but too late to escape the same deadly barrage. Germans lay dead, in the cabin, sprawled over the unevenly piled lumber, draped over the sides, and fallen onto the road.
Quickly, the partisans ran up to the trucks. Within fifteen minutes they’d grabbed all the weapons and food, even stripping the dead of uniforms and—most valuable of all for the badly equipped partisans—good boots. The trucks were set on fire and the partisans set off, each laden with about 65 pounds of loot. As they passed through three villages on the way back to base they displayed their trophies to the peasants as a way of proving that the partisans could fight and win.
Back at the People’s Avenger’s camp, Kavilin dramatically jumped to attention, saluted Voronyansky and shouted, “Commander, your order was carried out. We burned two big trucks full of supplies and we killed nine Germans. We took 15 rifles, 10 pistols, 940 bullets, 15 pairs of boots, and 19 backpacks full of other supplies.”
The People’s Avengers were in business. Within a month, Sigalchik was leading the attack on the German military railroad as a full-fledged partisan.
But Segalchik and Avraham Friedman hadn’t forgotten the need to rescue more of their people. Friedman had brothers and a sister in Postov. Sigalchik’s wife and daughter were still stuck in the small shtetl of Myadel, where they had all lived together during the year before the war began. Myadel was said to have the most beautiful location in Belarus, isolated amidst pristine forests and on the shore of Lake Narotch. It was one of the last towns in eastern Poland where Jews were still alive.
In November 1942, Segalchik and Friedman asked Timchuk for permission to go to Myadel and other nearby towns to rescue relatives and, for the good of the brigade, bring back badly needed food supplies. Timchuk thought the mission risky but when he realized they were determined agreed as long as they would be back within three days. With them went Michael Friedman and the “Estonchik” Blechmann. They each took one pistol and a total of four hand grenades and set off on foot. Three days later, they rested in a village near Dolhinov and sent a local farmer to Myadel to find out if Segalchik’s in-laws, wife, and daughter were still alive. It took two days for him to return.
Let’s stop here with them in the village of Bakunik and ponder this a moment. Here is Segalchik who, just three years ago stood under the wedding canopy, envisioning a quiet life of hard work and happiness with his bride. A year later they have a little baby girl. And then the world conflagrates. He sees brutality and death, the town rabbi torn to pieces by German attack dogs, two dozen of his friends and acquaintances machinegunned before his eyes; travels hundreds of miles, almost all on foot, throughout eastern Poland; is a fugitive crouching in a little hole in the ground listening to the sounds of massacre outside; his shoes crunching through the snow in flight, shivering through winter nights unprotected in the forest; thrown into jail with a death sentence due to be carried out the next day, flight and concealment again; breaking three times through the ghetto fence, and months of deadly combat.
And now he sits in a peasant hut waiting to hear word as to whether his wife and little girl are alive or have been slaughtered.
What goes through a man’s mind in such circumstances?
In this case, at least, the judgment is favorable. The farmer arrives back and tells him that his little family still lives.
He and his three friends don’t hesitate a moment. They pick up their packs and get out the door fast, back on the road to Myadel. But there’s a slight unexpected detour.
When they arrive in a farmers’ house near Zari, peasants flock there to complain, asking the partisans for justice. Bandits are roving the area, pretending to be partisans but robbing people instead. But Sigalchik’s in an understandble hurry to get to Myadel and brushes them off. Fate, however, intervenes. Through the Malishka forest the four partisans pace, single-file, weapons ready to use at any moment. Suddenly, they practically collide with two men who are too careless, not spotting until after they’re spotted. The partisans get within five yards of them.
“Stop!” orders Sigalchik. “Hands up!” The two men wisely comply.
“Do you have any weapons?”
“No,” they respond.
“Michael, frisk them,” commands Sigalchik. There’s a loud metallic clack as metal hits the forest floor. One of the men had dropped a small pistol to avoid its being discovered in his pocket. Freedman found nothing else suspicious.
‘Who are you and what are you doing in the middle of the forest?”
“We’re looking for partisans. We want to join up.”
“And what are your names?”
One of them said he was Mleczko from Dolhinov.
From Dolhinov! Segalchik was startled. Looking closer, he realized he knew this man. Mleczko was a criminal and German collaborator in killing several Jews there. But he didn’t recognize Segalchik, who hadn’t been living there for much of the last four years. Not letting on what he knew, Segalchik ordered them to come with his group and took them back to the farmhouse where they rested the previous night.
When they knocked on the door at 2am, the half-asleep farmer, was surprised to see Segalchik back, but positively startled to see him with Mlezko. Segalchik asked, “Do you know these men?”
After a moment’s hesitation, he said yes. These two had been demanding money from the farmers, including him, threatening to burn down their houses otherwise. Segalchik took out the captured pistol, “Have you seen this gun before?”
Certainly, the farmer responded. The last time he’d seen it that pistol had been pointed at his chest by these two bandits.
Segalchik and his men discussed what to do, but they never had any doubt. They wrote down the farmer’s testimony and that of his family, also roused from bed for that purpose. Then they marched the two men into the forest, shot them dead at close range, and pinned the reports on their bodies.
And with that they returned to the road. As they approached Myadel, Sigalchik asked friendly farmers what was going on in the town and ghetto. The two Friedmans went off to Postov, to rescue Jews there. Next, Sigalchik sent a farmer friend’s wife into town with a note telling his wife that he’d be waiting that evening in the Nivisolki cemetery on the town’s edge to take their daughter, and her own family to freedom.
Some hours later the woman returned with a message from his wife. Their daughter was sick and she didn’t want to leave her, but her own father insisted she take this opportunity and promised to take good care of the baby until they could all be saved. Segalchik was saddened by the news but determined to do go on with his plan.
Around 8 pm as he crouched near the road, he suddenly saw a shadow. Sigalchik knew he should be cautious but couldn’t contain himself. “Batya!” he yelled out. His wife ran toward him and the hugged and kissed. It was so that in those days of woe two people could never assume they’d ever meet again on this earth.
Almost 20 people also escaped from the Postov ghetto, including three of Friedman’s brothers, his sister and her husband. In the dark, they’d missed Avraham, who was waiting for them, but had nonetheless made their way to safety. All of the Friedman brothers and cousins would become partisan fighters; two of them would die in battle.
In early October 1942, Sigalchik returned to Myadel with Timchuk’s permission, sent a letter the same route to his father-in-law, urging him to organize all the Jews in the ghetto to escape. There were 144 in all, many of them either elderly or children since so many of the young people had already been slain. One group would meet him outside town, a second would be hide in the marshlands and among friendly peasants to be evacuated later, and the third group would be entrusted to Blechmann to lead out.
On a rainy, dark night, he went with Michael Friedman to guide out the first group. But halfway to the meeting place he heard sounds many people walking who were not used to keeping the quiet required by soldiers. He yelled out the name of his brother-in-law, Zelig, who he knew would be at the head of the column. Zelig ran to him, they embraced, and he took them to safety.
But there was to be a harrowing reminder that despite the easy rescue of Zelig’s group, such happy results could not be taken for granted. Blechmann’s group of about 50 people outdistanced any pursuers but after two days of walking the refugees,–already ill-fed, exhausted, and slowed down by their children—begged for a rest. Blechmann knew there were no Germans in the area and so agreed. They were on the very banks of the Vilya river and near safety. So he let down his guard, failing to post proper lookouts.
Their luck might have held but evil came upon them that day in the form of Jan Ruzietski, a local shepherd who saw them, jumped on his horse and ran to tell the Germans that there were Jews about.
Why did he do it? Hatred of Jews or hope of reward? Whatever the mix of motives, he did what he did. The Dolhinov German garrison ran to the spot, surprised the refugees, and killed about 28 of them. The rest, including Blechmann, fled and arrived back at the partisan camp. Not only had Ruzietski seen the Jews, however, but he was seen by some of the villagers mounting his horse and racing away to Dolhinov. In time, there would be a terrible vengeance—Sigalchik did not forget or forgive–but that would have to wait until later in the war.
Sigalchik’s abilities were remembered by the officers and Myadel itself was not forgotten either. On the evening of October 31, 1942, Sigalchik was called to brigade headquarters. Standing before all the unit’s top officers, he received news that couldn’t have been more welcome. Colonel Sokolov announced that the brigade had decided to form an exclusively Jewish platoon that he would command. The Jewish refugees who had escaped from Dolhinov, Glebokie and other towns had a total of eight rifles, three of which needed to be repaired. They were given ten more.
Bursting with enthusiasm, he walked as fast as he could toward where the men were camped, making a mental list as he went on who he would recruit. He pulled together eighteen relatively recent arrivals, got them into military formation and marched them back to headquarters. An officer called the name of each soldier who snapped to attention and received a rifle. The commanders added ten names of more veteran soldiers, Jewish Red Army men who’d escaped capture or prisoner-of-war camps.
After the ceremony, Sigalchik was asked to return to headquarters alone. Then he was given the second remarkable news of that evening. The next day, November 1, 1942, he would lead his platoon including many soldiers from his hometown, Dolhinov, as part of the People’s Avenger’s attack on his former residence, Myadel.
Timchuk had come up with the idea for this all-Jewish platoon and its deployment in an immediate attack as part of a wider plan, even though it was totally at odds with his party’s philosophy. Jews were simply not recognized as a nationality and, of course, the Communists did not accept religion as a basis for organization. Such an action could never have been approved by partisan headquarters and no doubt Timchuk never asked for permission.
While the fact that Timchuk wasn’t a Jew himself shielded him to some extent from possible persecution as a Jewish “nationalist” or “chauvinist,” the Stalinist system had done stranger things. He was taking a risk that required real courage. Yet such was the respect in which he was held, that no one back at headquarters ever raised such questions.
His immediate motive was clear. He knew that a lot of his soldiers were antisemites, and he knew what the Nazis were doing to the Jews—including people who were his personal friends. Timchuk wanted to break the prejudice of his own forces and to make full use of the skills and high motivation of the Jewish soldiers and civilian support workers.
Years later, looking back on the Miyadel attack, he would explain his plan in his own words:
“[Many partisans] said that Jews did not fight. In fact, their unit had the best discipline….Five minutes after the signal to attack the Jewish unit was inside the town. …We freed many Jews on that day and killed many German soldiers and policemen. We burnt down their barracks and took their weapons and ammunition. I always said that a crowd without a leader in nothing. And our fight at Myadel proved it. After that several commanders asked me to give them some Jewish partisans to strengthen fighting spirit in their units.”
In effect, though no one spoke of ranks, Sigalchik was being commissioned as lieutenant and platoon commander. His sergeants were Dmitry Friedman and Yakov Blechmann, and his corporals were Michael Friedman, just 22 years old, and Moshe Rogovin. These were men in whom Timchuk had great faith, and three of the five were personal friends as well.
Blechmann, the Estonia-born escaped prisoner of war, was described by Timcuk as “a very brave young man” who succeeded in every task. The Friedman brothers had worked for Timchuk on the fox farm before the German invasion, and were brothers of his trusted aide Avraham Friedman. As for Michael Friedman, Sigalchik’s close friend, Timchuk saw him as the ideal scout, “He was fearless. He could enter any German-held town, talk to the people there, and report back to us.”
Rogovin, too, had performed remarkable deeds. In December 1941, he organized a group of seven young Jews from his shtetl and taken them into forest. He then attacked the town, killing nine police and taking six more with him as recruits, presumably having talked them into defecting beforehand and they had helped in the attack. In the following weeks, he added 28 local Byelorussians to form his own partisan group before merging it into Timchuk’s command.
Sigalchik and the others were excited. Not only were they being given a chance to prove themselves as both commanders and soldiers; not only were they going to have the chance for revenge on the Germans and their collaborators, not only had they found non-Jews prepared to treat them as human beings, but they were also going to have the chance to liberate some of their own people. For Sigalchik this was literally true since his wife’s family came from the town, he had lived there himself, and already had organized one liberation operation of his own.
And yet there is a something about the attack on Myadel which reminds us of the enormous gap that still remained between Jews and Soviets. History books say or imply that the attack was staged to free the town’s Jews. That is not quite so. The two main factors which brought about the operation were the hope of capturing military equipment and the expectation that the enemy would be caught by surprise since partisans hadn’t operated in that area before.
According to Sigalchik and the other Jewish participants—the non-Jews, except for Timchuk, left no records of it and he says nothing on this issue—even then when almost all the Jews under German control had been murdered, even the People’s Avengers command—the most favorable toward Jews of all the non-Jewish partisans–put not even a low priority on saving the rest. The orders were this: only a small group of Jews useful to the unit, including the town’s doctor and dentist, were to be rescued. The rest were to be left to their unquestionably fatal fates.
On the night of October 31, Sigalchik was too happy and excited to think about this, or perhaps it was part of his calculations. Clearly, he was a man who knew when not to obey orders. He later wrote of his feelings that evening, “I swore to myself that my unit would be a symbol and example of loyal fighters for all Soviet partisans.” But he had his own idea of what he would do to prove himself such a symbol and example, and Sigalchik also knew—quite properly—to whom he had to be most loyal.
The night has passed, though how much sleep the Jewish partisans had in those hours is doubtful, and a new day arose, passing in its own turn. It’s now nine pm on the gathering night of November 1, 1942. The People’s Avengers rose from their places and moved into formation. Three companies left camp and came to a ford across the Vilya river, whose waters continued southward toward Dolhinov. “Undress,” came the order. Holding clothes and weapons above their heads, shivering in the November chill, they waded the cold river. Then they quickly dressed and ran a half-mile to warm up. Through the trees they marched, to the scenic town of Myadel, isolated amidst glittering lakes and dense forests, at midnight.
Within sight of the town they stopped to rest for a while as the officers made their final attack plan, using a detailed map of the town and its defenses provided by scouts.
Here were their orders:
The three platoons of Company A, commanded by Captain Sashka from Rozkov and guided by Sigalchik, whose Jewish platoon was part of it, would sneak in through the Niviolsky Cemetery, silence the guard position there, and sneak up on the police station which was located in a two-story house without firing a shot. There they would wait for Company B to come up into position.
Company B would follow and surround a two-story house where the Lithuanian security police lived. And to show how personal this all was, that had been the home of the Alperovitz family, which was well-represented in the ranks of the People’s Avengers. This was a very personal war.
And Company C, commanded by Captain Markov, would deploy five miles outside town to guard the road and block any German reinforcements which came in response to the attack. Markov was new to his post and so, though well-regarded, was given the less-challenging assignment.
Sashka called for volunteers. Shraga Solominski and Chaim Riar, two of the Jewish partisans, and a Byelorussian soldier stepped forward. Their job would be to take out the guard. They were given guns with silencers. Under cover of the darkness and walking single file, with Solominski in the lead, they snuck up on the lone guard, patrolling the road as it entered town, getting very close. Solominski carefully took aim and shot him once, the home-made silencer muffled the noise. The man collapsed and the partisans leaped on him. As he moaned in pain, Solominski hit him hard with his rifle butt. One of the others ran back to say the guard was eliminated and the command was given, “Advance!”
Stealthily, Company A moved forward following Segalchik’s platoon, which included Solominski, and Boris Kuzinitz. The town was very quiet. Not even a dog barked. Then a few scattered shots rang out from the Lithuanian security police who’d detected Company B’s presence. The partisans opened up with everything they had. The barks of rifles, pistols, machineguns, and the boom of an occasional grenade split the air. The panicked police, many of them still in pajamas, took refuge in a church near the ghetto gates from which they continued shooting.
At the police station, those inside started shooting at Company A which opened up in response. A German soldier tried to run into the station for cover and Sigalchik shot him dead. Then a messenger arrived and said that Sigalchik’s platoon must hurry to Company B’s help bringing anything flammable they could find. Coming from an unexpected direction, they could set the church and policemen’s house on fire, forcing the Germans and Lithuanians out of their strongholds.
Sigalchik reacted quickly. He sent Friedman with a few men to a field to get bales of hay and fifteen minutes later they had set the police’s residence on fire. The Germans climbed to the top of the church steeple and were firing down on Friedman, so Sigalchik’s unit directed its own fire to pin down the men in the tower while Kuzinitz; the 20-year-old Yitzhak Radoshkivitz, still another partisan from Dolhinov; and two other men placed hay around the church and set the bales ablaze.
Taking advantage of the confusion, Sigalchik took some men into the German army clinic, grabbed all the medicine and supplies they could, and set it ablaze. The houses and church were now burning brightly, and Sigalchik got back into position. As the enemy soldiers ran out the partisans shot them down.
But the police station was still holding out. It was a sturdy building of cinder blocks with a tile roof. The police were shooting from every window. Company B tried to charge the building with grenades but three of its men were killed and they had to fall back. For two hours, they besieged the building but it was now 10 in the morning. The partisans knew the garrison had called for reinforcements and it wouldn’t be long before they arrived. Suddenly, they heard the daunting sound of vehicles approaching.
Company C, guarding the road, had ambushed the reinforcements, knocking out their first tank. But the relief force was too big and it had to pull back. They send word of the approaching German force to Major Sokolov, commanding the operation in Myadel, and he ordered a withdrawal. This was Segalchik’s moment of decision.
He turned to Friedman and asked about the ghetto. There were still about 90 people there, about 15 families the Germans had been keeping alive as specialists. Sigalchik knew they wouldn’t have much longer to live. Among them were his widowed sister-in-law. Sigalchik had seen her husband gunned down by the Germans shortly before they’d arrived. As he later wrote, “I didn’t ask for anyone’s permission” but ran off to the ghetto with several men from his platoon.
Siglachik led his men at a run to the barbed wire and wooden fence around the ghetto and broke through with their rifles. Sigalchik ran to one house and broke in the window with his rifle, yelling in Yiddish, “What are you standing here for? Do you wish to die without trying to save yourself? Pretty soon they’ll come here and slaughter you like sheep!”
Looking inside, he saw people—some of whom he knew personally—lying on the floor, “Get up! Run for your lives!” he yelled. “Run through the cemetery to the marshes of Yarmuling.” The Jews got up and ran.
Kuzinitz knocked on the window of another house but no one answered until he yelled out in Yiddish. Someone opened the window and Kuzinitz told him that Jewish partisans were rescuing them and would take them to safety. All the inhabitants came out and followed him.
But Solominski ran into problems at the third. “Quickly,” he told the startled Jews awakened by this stranger armed with a rifle, “Come with us. Escape to the forest.” To Solominski’s amazement, nobody moved. “Why are you running us to the forest to die of starvation,” said one man. Another insisted, “Nobody should leave the ghetto! Our lives were secured until your invasion. We won’t go!”
Their reaction eerily echoed Exodus 16:3, when those so long enslaved in the land of Egypt complained to Moses, ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
And indeed, though the Germans had reduced them to slavery for only a little over a year, the traditional strategy of passivity and avoidance to ward off external threats had asserted itself. That had indeed been successful for centuries, but it would not save them in the twentieth, that most bestial of all to date. Even Solominski, on reflection, called up a classical quotation from Jewish tradition, the local people’s belief that “this, too, will pass and they [the Germans], too, will perish.”
But at that moment, he was astounded and couldn’t believe his own ears! Was it possible that these Jews didn’t know their fate if they stayed? The Germans had fooled them, of course, with lies and promises, and then there was the innate wishful thinking—magnified in Jews by so little power and so much suffering over centuries—of human beings not wanting to face ‘the disaster staring them in the face.
Then, too, they did have reasons for fearing the forest: the rapacity of some partisans, the robbers, deprivations, likelihood their children wouldn’t survive cold or hunger, and the chance of death in battle. If the Germans had not been bent on total extermination, their preference to stay—and possibly die—in their homes and among their families might have been the right one.
But with gunfire blazing and bullets ricocheting, there wasn’t time for debate. Aside from the mere seconds still possible for escape and his determination to save lives, Solominski knew he could never explain to partisan comrades that they’d risked their lives only to be rebuffed. He begged those in the house to move fast, “The Germans won’t let you live! If you don’t leave the ghetto immediately your fate will be that of the Jews in other towns.”
That still didn’t work. Finally, he lost his temper and shouted: “We must clear the ghetto quickly and burn its houses. If you don’t leave of your own free will we’ll burn the houses on top of you. Go to the forest, and there we’ll help you!”
Only then, did the Jews in the room move, grabbing such possessions as they could carry. And as they went outside, to be led by some partisans toward the forest, others set the decrepit houses on fire. It wasn’t a moment too soon. German reinforcements came down the road, firing as fast as they could. The order was given for the partisans to retreat, taking with them not only the escaped Jews but also a pleasing haul of military equipment and medical supplies. For his part, Solominski took a pair of new boots off a dead German.
The battle was over and the People’s Avengers, who could count it a victory, made their escape. Company B had lost five dead, one of them a Jewish refugee from Minsk, and thirteen wounded. The rest were unscathed. German casualties were estimated, perhaps slightly too high, at around 33.
But Sigalchik wasn’t finished yet. Happy about saving 90 lives, he suddenly realized that on his way out of town he had just passed the house of the half Polish, half Lithuanian Litov family. They had been among the fiercest persecutors of the town’s Jews. Sigalchik remembered when 22 young people, including his brother-in-law, plus the rabbi had been murdered how Mrs. Litov had run through the streets yelling, “Now the day of revenge on the Jews has come! Let’s kill them all so they won’t contaminate the town!”
Full of anger, he turned around and went back to the house. He yelled in Polish for her to open the door. Thinking it was one of the policemen seeking cover, she did so. Sigalchik shot her down in the doorway. Her blood formed a large pool on the steps. He then turned and ran to join the rest of his men. Later, since she’d been so helpful to them, the Germans sent her in an ambulance along with their own wounded and she survived her wounds.
As the partisans and the Jews from the ghetto ran out of town, German snipers on the roofs wounded some of the partisans and Jewish civilians. The dentist’s wife, hit in the leg, couldn’t go on. Two partisans lifted her up and carried her on their shoulders. Everyone dashed to the tree line as fast as they could and then kept going. There is an art to running in a Russian forest, which can feel something like being the little steel sphere in a pinball game. Trees and roots bunch so close together that it’s hard to work up a good pace. One needs to do as much sideways dodging as forward progress, like a boxer bobbing and weaving.
But the woods were a welcome home for the partisans, whose best defense was German reluctance to go deep into the unwelcoming forest where they might easily be ambushed, as had happened in the earlier big battle between them and the People’s Avengers. They couldn’t take their trucks, tanks, half-tracks, or artillery there. Moreover, these were not usually front-line troops but support regiments or mercenary militias not eager to give up their lives for the Fatherland. Knowing this, partisans knew they were far more secure under branches than in the open.
But that advantage only applied deep in the forest and the Avengers, with refugees in tow, hurried to get as far as possible as fast as possible. Finally, they arrived at a friendly village, grabbed a wagon, and lay the wounded woman down on the flatbed, quickly resuming their trek back to camp.
The soldiers trudged forward, putting one foot in front of the other; the wagon wheels turned, creaking. Three locally recruited Byelorussian partisans began grumbling: “Why should we, returning tired from a military operation have to walk on foot,” they said, “while the zidovka—a derogatory word for Jewess—gets to go on a wagon.” The fact that she was a civilian, a woman, was wounded did not matter to them. For these soldiers of the Soviet Union, nominally of the anti-fascist cause, a Jew was still a Jew.
They ignored Solominski’s pleas that she was wounded and couldn’t walk, pulled her down, and climbed aboard themselves. Solominski later recalled, “We of course could do nothing but carry her all the way to the base.”
But why couldn’t they do anything? Was there no officer there, or at least one who would help? Was Solominski afraid that if he complained they’d just shoot him? Clearly, he was ashamed at his powerlessness. Even after having proven himself in battle he was still a second-class citizen. “It was as if someone slapped my face hard,” he explained.
The Jews had seen both personally in their own life-times and collectively over centuries that turning the other cheek had ensured survival without making them respected or causing mistreatment to cease. Jewish partisans still had a lot in common psychologically—and they knew it—with the townspeople who preferred to be at the Germans’ mercy than to rebel. And in both cases, these responses were conditioned because they understood their own weakness and the unwillingness of the majority around them to help.
As soon as they got back to base, Solominski protested to an officer, demanding the three men be put on trial. The officer said he was helpless to do anything, “Partisans will be partisans, what is one to do?” Solominski did not dare criticize such passivity. So like all Jews who had seen their demand for humanitarian behavior fail, he tried to appeal to the officers’ sense of self-interest. If such soldiers weren’t disciplined, he argued, they’d soon disobey orders or desert. The officer didn’t answer. Solominski had no other recourse.
That’s not the end of this story, though, by a long shot. A few days later, the three troublemakers did indeed desert. They set up a hideout from which they raided villages robbing, killing and raping. They were captured, court-martialed, and sentenced to death. Solominski had the pleasure of commanding the firing squad.
Lest this seem an unalloyed victory for justice, however, the suffering of the hapless dentist’s wife was not at an end. While living in the family camp, she was raped by partisans who not only infected her with venereal disease but then accused her of infecting them. Only a strong and risky fight by Jewish partisans cleared her and resulted in the culprits’ punishment.
Such was life, and death, in wartime Belarus.
As the months passed, the People’s Avengers had been through many operations, ambushes and raids against the railroad, bridges, convoys, and German outposts. It built up a strong intelligence and supply network among Polish and Byelorussian farmers. But the Germans had just as many or more collaborators, including armed militias raised in each town. When catching someone helping partisans, the Germans would kill his whole family. In contrast, the partisans only killed those directly involved in spying or killing.
The People’s Avengers also tried to figure out ways to take advantage of the German intelligence system. One was to send a few men through villages at night making noise and pretending to be a large unit in order to divert the enemy’s attention from an attack taking place elsewhere. Informers then ran to tell the Germans who rushed their forces to the scene to find that nothing was going on there. Then, on finding they’d been fooled, the Germans stopped listening to their informants and sometimes beat them up. As a result, some of the informants would quit.
A more effective version of this strategy was thought up by Markov, a company commander from the area who had a Jewish wife. Two Jewish partisans were sent to a village called Swir, a mile from a strongly held police station, to pretend they were drunk and make a big stir. A German collaborator ran off to the police station in order to tell them about the intruders. Markov saw him go and happily whispered to the others hiding in ambush, “We did it!” Some of his men, not knowing the plan, raised their guns to shoot the informant but Markov ordered them to hold their fire.
A half hour later, the laughing Germans mounted their horses—some not even waiting to put on their saddles–and hurried down the dirt road to have some fun tormenting the foolish Jews. There were 150 partisans, including a couple of machine guns, awaiting them. Twenty Germans were soon lying dead along the road.
Another successful ambush was against the Dolhinov garrison and police when it was away from base. A partisan informant reported that soldiers and police were going to the town of Khachenchitz to collect supplies and taxes. The platoon spread out, hid among trees along the road, camouflaged themselves, then slept as best they could.
The next morning at dawn, scouts spotted the convoy returning to Dolhinov. There were about 40 soldiers and police guarding several trucks with conscripted workers. When the convoy was opposite the ambush, the commanding officer blew a whistle and they began firing. The surprised Germans jumped from the vehicles and ran for their lives, leaving behind 16 dead. Several others, including the convoy commander, surrendered. Freed, the workers raced down the road for home. The partisans seized arms and supplies.
But they quickly realized that the greatest prize of all was one of their prisoners, Ulshuk, the local police commander in Ilya who, along with relatives, had murdered Jews and stole their property in several towns. They took him around to different villages, telling peasants that he’d defected voluntarily. The partisans’ goal was both to raise morale and in hope that the Germans might execute his relatives who were genuine collaborators but might now be seen as partisan spies.
Finally, they dragged Ulshuk back to camp, tried him before a partisan court, and sentenced him to death. The once-bullying police chief, who’d bragged that he’d never be captured alive, now fell to his knees and begged for mercy. The firing squad shot him any way.
Throughout the winter of 1942-1943, the partisans gathered confidence. By the time spring came, the People’s Avengers brigade had grown to 500 combatants operating in seven districts. Now they were ready for a particularly daring operation which stirred the feelings of the 28 soldiers who had escaped Dolhinov: a second attack on that town itself.
As long as there had been Jews in Dolhinov, but few partisans outside it, there was no permanent German garrison there. During the first attack only six months earlier, there had only been about a dozen German soldiers in Dolhinov. Now, there were 200, quartered in the homes which Jewish families had inhabited for generations. Timchuk agreed that the Dolhinov men could form their own unit for the attack, led by Segalchik, Abraham Friedman, and Dmitri Friedman. In the fighting, Dmitri particularly distinguished himself, being the first to break into the police station, where he seized all the weapons and destroyed the documents. Three-quarters of the houses in the ghetto were destroyed by fire. Between that and the disappearance of the Jews who had been most of its population for centuries, Dolhinov as a town would never recover.
There is, however, also a mystery here. Why was this highly praised combat unit suddenly broken up and assigned to routine duties guarding the hospital? The answer is this: In January 1943, a German agent–a non-Jew from Globoki pretending to be a Jew—infiltrated the unit. When he was discovered, two Jewish soldiers from the platoon were assigned to guard him. They both fell asleep and he escaped. Although the spy was recaptured, falling asleep on guard duty was a capital offense. All three men were executed and, as punishment, the platoon’s soldiers were sent to other units. Only the one squad remained for Sigalchik to command.
But the partisans, reinforced by the survivors of Dolhinov and other towns, were steadily getting stronger. They could win small battles as long as they were on the offensive, fighting at a time and place of their choosing, striking where the Germans were weak or didn’t expect an attack. To combat them, the Germans launched big encirclement operations, sending large forces into the forests in May-June and September 1943 and in May 1944. These assaults inflicted heavy casualties on the partisans but in a sense were also a victory for them any way. After all, if the Germans devoted considerable forces to combating partisans, they had to take men and supplies away from the main battle, and tying down more troops was precisely the partisans’ goal.
On May 15, 1943, the Germans began concentrating forces for their first massive anti-partisan offensive. Dolhinov was filled with their soldiers, accompanied by Ukrainian and turncoat Russian troops, ready to advance into the forests. Four days later, they attacked. The People’s Avengers and other units suffered heavy losses as they retreated into a region of dense forests and swamps. Precisely because so many partisans were concentrated into a small area, they urgently had to break through the encirclement or starve.
The People’s Avengers hospital was in special danger since patients and equipment could not easily be moved. It was directed by Dr. Samuel Shtshegelov, who had escaped the Minsk ghetto in 1942, while Segalchik’s platoon was responsible for defending it. For added security, the hospital had been put on an island in the swamps accessible only by boat. Local peasants brought supplies for the wounded including clean sheets and pillows. As long as Jews had remained alive in towns, those with access to supplies, like my pharmacist uncle Mendel Chefetz, smuggled out medical equipment and medicines. But with the ghettos emptied of life, everything now had to be captured from the Germans.
Full of wounded, however, its inaccessible location now proved a problem. There was only about 60 pounds of beans and 40 of dry bread left and the Germans were getting closer. By the evening of June 1, They had to evacuate immediately. The most seriously wounded had to be hidden in the area; the more lightly wounded were sent to another island with dr. Kotler, and those ten wounded men able to walk, along with some of the noncombatant staff, were accompanied by Sigalchik and his security detachment into the deepest marshlands.
Having no compass or map, Sigalchik’s group was soon lost in the trackless marsh. They had been only able to take a little food. All around them, they could hear Germans shooting. To avoid detection, they had to stand quietly waist-deep in stagnant water for hours at a time. When things were quieter, they’d walk in one direction, until hearing shots, then change course.
Only on the fifth day did they reach an island with a lot of grass, and so famished were they that they devoured it, even though it was bitter and didn’t satisfy their hunger On they went until finally, on June 19, all shooting stopped. In the silence, Sigalchik was boosted into a tree to get a better view. So weak was he that he fell out. “We must continue,” he told his group, “Although we don’t know where we should go. If we stay still we will die of starvation.”
Taking a stick to lean on and using all his remaining reserves of energy, Sigalchik began walking again and the others followed. He headed southeast, feeling he remembered the way. But after plodding on all day on June 20 they still couldn’t find any recognizable landmarks. The swamp was silent, “like a huge, never-ending cemetery,” Sigalchik called it. In the evening they arrived at a very muddy forest, lit a fire, boiled some dirty water to drink, and slept.
Finally, on June 25, 1943, they found a way back to their base, which had been burned by the Germans. But at least the medical unit had suffered no casualties. As they rebuilt their makeshift wards and operating room, they were also able to catch up with the news.
Ten days earlier, on June 15 at around 11 in the morning, while Sigalchik and his group was still wandering the swampland, the Germans finally caught up to the People’s Avengers when they stopped to rest on the edge of a forest, brought their infantry up close in trucks, and attacked on three sides with about 1,000 men, a three-to-one advantage.
Since the attacking force had no cover while the partisans were scattered among the trees, the defenders held their own during the 45-minute battle, and were able to pull back into the forest. At one point, Timchuk, rallying his flank, was fired on by Germans just forty yards away. His life was saved by a Jewish machine-gunner and Communist named Aleksandrovich, a man in his 40s, ancient by partisan standards, who killed four of the attackers, forcing the other two to flee. Aleksandrovich later became executive secretary of the brigade’s Communist party organization.
In August 1943, headquarters decided to bring partisan commanders in for a major planning and coordination meeting. On another moonless light, a Soviet plane landed. The men rushed toward it to unload the equipment; good-byes were hurriedly exchanged with those climbing aboard. Timchuk, feeling unwell from his old war wounds, couldn’t go and an aide, Major David Keimah, a Soviet Jewish officer, went in his place. Also aboard were Colonel Voronyansky, commander of the People’s Avengers, and Sonya Kotler, wife of Dolhinov’s—and now the brigade’s–Jewish doctor.
The last crate was thrown off and hustled away. The door shut. A hundred hands waved. The plane accelerated and rose from the ground, higher, higher but, alas, not high enough. It scraped the top of a tree, twisted, fell, and exploded in flaming wreckage, killing all aboard. Familiar with death had come again. How quickly joy turned to bleakest sorrow. Or were they all too numbed already to feel either? But life, and war, went on. Now Timchuk formally took Voronyansky’s place as the unit’s commander.
For Jewish civilians with the brigade, survival was much tougher during the German offensives. They had no guns to defend themselves and their only safety came from getting as far away as possible from the soldiers, scattering and hiding. During the September 1943 offensive, partisans could only take the civilians to a swamp and tell them to sit down in the water in hope the Germans wouldn’t go to such places. For two days, they did so, having only bog water to drink and grasses to nibble on as shots echoed around them.
As the Germans approached, the partisan fighters held them off while the Jewish civilians ran in all directions, having no idea in which of them lay safety. Esfira Dimenshtein, her brother, mother, and uncle were all separated. Esfira knocked on the door of the first house she saw. The old peasant woman, named Stefa, who lived there asked, “Who is it?”
Dimenshtein cried out in Polish begging to be let in. The woman signaled her to come inside, dirty and wet as she was, peering in each direction to make sure nobody saw. Stefa had no idea she was Jewish as she was wearing peasant clothes and speaking fluent Polish. She was allowed to wash and directed to the barn to keep company with the cow and goat. A few minutes later, Stefa appeared, gave her a dress and told her to climb into the loft and hide amidst the straw. “You can stay until the partisans come,” she said.
And so Esfira lay down and thought of all the relatives and friends who had been killed, thinking she was the last member of her family alive. Later, Stefa dug a hole in the barn in the cow’s pen, covering it with manure and straw. All day, Esfira stayed there, coming out only at night. She lived that way for a year until the day that Stefa told her the Red Army had arrived.
Many others were not so fortunate. But hard-hit as they were, the partisans kept going and hundreds of Jews continued to survive in the forest. As the Germans finally pulled back, the units and their civilian workers reassembled, returning to their regular activities.
Back in the towns and farms of eastern Poland, though, life was equally hard. Frustrated at constant pinpricks from growing partisan bands and having no more Jews to massacre, the Germans also shifted their civil strategy. They were caught in a bind of their own making. In wiping out the Jews, the Nazis sabotaged their supply system and agricultural production by destroying much of their own labor force. This triumph of crazed ideology over cynical pragmatism would cost them dearly.
In dealing with the Christians of the occupied lands, the Germans had another economic and ideological paradox. The Germans needed to maximize the peasants’ production of food while minimizing their income. They imposed high taxes and agricultural quotas. Each peasants family, for example, was only allowed to keep three eggs a week. There were taxes on dogs (150 rubles), wells (25 rubles) and on each family member (50 rubles). Not delivering crops or performing forced labor tasks, more frequent after Jews were no longer there to do them, were punished severely.
By starving and brutally treating Poles and Byelorussians, the Germans ensured their growing hostility. Yet since they saw themselves as the master race, Slavs as inferior, and Poland as theirs, the Germans made no full-scale effort to reward local nationalism in order to mobilize it against the Soviets.
The German responded to the gradually turning tide of war by taking two steps. First, they began to repress Poles and court Byelorussians.
To keep up farm production in the Dolhinov area, the Germans originally used the remaining Polish landlords and experts who’d avoided deportation by the Soviets. They also kept in place many of the hated Soviet collective farms as being more efficient than the family-cultivated small plots preferred by the peasants. Grumbling at this system and at having to obey their traditional Polish overlords, Byelorussian peasants stole what they could and sometimes set the fields aflame.
Just as they had sought to gain popularity by persecuting the Jews, now the Germans employed the same tactic by cracking down on the Poles. In autumn 1942, hundreds of Poles were fired from their jobs; dozens were shot. Things got worse in 1943. In Bialystok alone, 2000 Poles were murdered. Polish landowners were thrown off their property and replaced by Byelorussian collaborators. The German-installed Polish mayor of Dolhinov and his chief agricultural expert were arrested and murdered, replaced by Byelorussians who were told to maintain order and food production or else.
When such measures failed to gain Byelorussian support and as some peasants helped partisans, the harshest measures were used against them. During the war, the Nazis burned more than 300 villages in Belarus and slaughtered most of their inhabitants, often by burning down their houses with the peasants inside, shooting anyone trying to escape.
Second, they reversed their earlier policy of harshly treating captured Soviet soldiers and began recruiting them into anti-partisan units. Lt. Colonel Gil-Ridionov, leader of the Russian prisoners who changed sides in the Dolhinov area, became commander of the 3000-man First Russian National Brigade.
But it was too late. Up to December 1941 the Germans had advanced rapidly on Leningrad and Moscow but then came winter and the Soviets held. The Germans made some gains during the autumn of 1942 but by June 1943 were on the defensive. With suspicion growing that the Nazis would lose the war and in the face of German material extortion and repression, many local people became convinced that they had more to lose by doing nothing than by helping the partisans.
This was also true for the Russian collaborators. In summer 1943, they began secret negotiations to return to the Soviet side. Moscow ordered Timchuk to deal with them. He set off on his horse with a dozen picked men, including Avraham Friedman and Koton. They were ordered to wear clean uniforms and not to shoot anyone without being ordered to do so. Koton guarded the meeting tent and was also assigned to socialize with Ridionov’s entourage, drinking and chatting with men who’d been trying to kill him the previous day.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” Friedman told Koton. But the two sides succeeded in making a deal. To prove their good faith, Ridionovs’s men, in their German uniforms, attacked the German garrison in Dokshitz, just north from Dolhinov, and partly burned it down. They then joined the partisans and accepted Soviet commissars.
Timchuk added them to his command and Avraham Friedman helped direct the reformed traitors. It must have been strange for Friedman to command soldiers he knew to be virulent antisemites. But the necessities of war required it. The returned soldiers did fightt bravely once again for the USSR in the Byelorussian forests. Stalin intended that as many as possible of them die, both as punishment and to ensure such unreliable elements never returned to his kingdom. And very few ever did make it back to the USSR.
As for Timchuk, he rose higher and higher as more partisan units were put under him, united in the First Anti-Nazi Partisan Brigade under his command. On January 1, 1944, he became a Hero of the Soviet Union, his country’s highest honor.
He deserved it. By the end of 1943, his partisans controlled a large part—one estimate says sixty percent—of Belarus’s rural areas. They tied down thousands of enemy forces who were thus unavailable to fight at the front. In direct terms, the partisans’ contribution to victory—disrupting supply lines and materiel, causing casualties, demoralizing the enemy–might have been small but in indirect terms it was enormous.
The Germans, of course, did not give up easily. They would make one more huge effort to wipe out the partisans.
In April and May 1944, the fury of a Belarus winter gave way to the assault of its almost equally belligerent springtime. Ice melted to enlarge the swamps and turn roads into quagmires. Then the rains came to turn the land into soup. For the first time, the Germans took whole divisions out of the front line and for three weeks, 30,000 of their soldiers backed by Latvian, Lithuanian, Byelorussian, and Ukrainian mercenary or nationalist auxiliaries tried to strangle the 35,000 partisans. They advanced deep into the forests and swamps. Yet at that very moment, the Red Army was advancing from the east and the Allies were about to land on the Normandy beaches to the west. The Germans were sapping the might they needed elsewhere. This was, of course, little comfort at that moment to the partisans and civilians of eastern Poland.
The attack was a nightmare for them, even given all they’d already been through, because at any moment the Germans might appear. One’s certain life span could only be measured in seconds. Nor was it much better for the peasants as the Germans set fire to every village suspected of helping the partisans. Aside from being tired and hungry, many were stricken with typhoid.
“Lay down your arms and surrender,” said the German loudspeakers, “you are completely surrounded.” The partisans responded with a wall of fire. For three days battles raged onward. With anti-tank weapons smuggled across the front lines, they managed to knock out several German tanks but could do nothing about the planes and artillery except trust to the trees to conceal themselves. Sent on a reconnaissance mission, Solominski and the Avengers’ Jewish engineer Rotblatt rode horses to the home of a civilian supporter. She ran out and bravely warned them that the roads were blocked, filled with German troops who would arrive at any moment.
The warning was no exaggeration. No sooner did she rush back to her home that the two partisans were surrounded and the Germans began shooting at them. They galloped off as fast as possible. Suddenly, Rotblatt’s horse slipped and he fell off. Solomnski yelled at him to run over and jump up behind him. But somehow Rotblatt managed to get his horse to stand, leaped on it, and the two raced off, galloping for more than five miles before shaking off pursuers. Some of their comrades, watching from a distance, were certain they’d been killed.
Both sides suffered heavy losses, and the partisans received orders to break off the fight and retreat as fast as possible to the Barzina river, just down the road from Dolhinov. A few riflemen stayed behind to persuade attackers that the main partisan forces were still there.
This was the war of the forests: small groups of men, often lost, wandering among thick-set trees. Partisans tried to escape; Germans fired on whoever they saw, revealing their positions so their prey could escape. Small partisan units passed through ambush after ambush, without food or officers, carrying wounded and sometimes even having lost their weapons.
Katzovitch was with one of the groups staying behind to lead German troops in the wrong direction. Just when Katzovitch and his small unit thought they were in the clear, he looked down onto fresh footprints. At that moment, he turned around and saw three Germans sneaking up behind him, one within ten feet of him. Leaping to the side to throw off their aim, he ran between the bushes and escaped, bullets flying over his head.
But a few miles away, his younger brother, who he had so lovingly rescued from their home town, was surrounded. He fired until he ran out of ammunition, then laid down on a hand grenade and waited until they came to capture him to blow himself up.
The main force of the People’s Avengers, tired and hungry—they hadn’t eaten for three days–finally arrived on the river bank. Knowing the Germans would see any campfires, they could cook no food that night. It was the very place where the Russians had almost finished off Poland forever by smashing Napoleon’s army 130 years earlier. Now the Russians were the ones who seemed caught in a trap.
Any day now, they knew the Soviet army would begin its grand offensive, but until then the pressure was on. Split up and break out in any way possible, was the order. Thousands of fighters and their Jewish civilian helpers sprang to action. In a series of hundreds of small, unknown bloody skirmishes they fought back, losing many casualties but tying down Germans as the Red Army got into position for the big breakthrough.
The hospital was overwhelmed with casualties. When a partisan stepped on a mine and received a serious leg wound, it took three days to get him there. By that time he had blood poisoning and the leg had to be amputated. Although Shtshegelov had no anesthetic left or proper equipment, the choice was between operating or watching the man die. So he took an ordinary saw, sterilized it in fire.
The patient was put on a table, two men held his hands and head; and a third held his other leg. The patient screamed and cried that he was being tortured during the half-hour operation. But he survived. As the Germans approached, the staff carried him and five other severely wounded men to a nearby hiding place, a task that took more than two hours. The last wounded man and his stretcher-bearers was only 50 yards from the camp as the Germans arrived.
In their hiding places, the soldiers, staff, and patients were close enough to hear their enemies’ voices. One patient shot through the lungs groaned all night. But somehow the Germans never heard him. The partisans, several of them from Dolhinov, could see Soviet planes dropping bombs on the island and the sound of their own artillery. They had to stay concealed for many days until scouts reported that the Red Army was approaching.
That the partisan forces were badly disrupted by the German offensive didn’t matter now: the great Soviet offensive was on and the German army would be swept out of the entire area.
In the first half of 1944 Belarus became the war’s most important front. Although pushed back in the south and north, the German army held its ground in the center. In a two-week attack starting about 100 miles east of Dolhinov during June and July 1944, the Red Army achieved total victory, destroying the entire German Army Group Center, the force which only three years earlier had so triumphantly marched to the gates of Moscow.
Once again, the Nazi empire’s fortunes rested on Hitler’s imperious judgment which at times in the past been triumphantly correct and at other times—like this one–disastrously wrong. He was certain the Soviets were on the defensive and that any attack they did stage would come further south, in the Ukraine.
This was a foolish mistake. The big bulge of the German line just east of Dolhinov—dubbed the Byelorussian balcony—invited Soviet attack and German commanders knew it. Seeing the Red Army’s build-up, those on the scene urged withdrawal to a stronger line along the Berezina river. Hitler refused. The more the Soviets strengthened their line, the more desperately generals begged Hitler to let them pull back but he insisted every position be held, dreaming of some future renewed German offensive against Moscow.
Thus, he did precisely what the Soviets wanted to ensure the success of their Operation Bagration, named after a Russian prince who fell in Moscow’s war against Napoleon, to which Soviets often compared the current conflict. From the north, a Red Army force would strike from Vitebsk down the Dolhinov road toward Minsk. To the south, a second pincer would advance through Borisov via Bobruysk into Minsk. The Germans would be crushed along a 400-mile front.
The Red Army planned carefully, carrying out constant reconnaissance to check German positions, coordinating ground attacks with artillery and massive air support. The partisans, too, had their role. On June 10 the partisans were ordered to step-up intelligence-gathering, destroying communications’ lines, and cutting supply routes to ensure the Germans would be weakened when the offensive began. Starting on June 19, they began to blow the railroad lines, too.
German officers on the front became positively frantic about what they were sure was about to happen. The German Ninth Army War Diary, for example, records the belief that the Red Army was massing for “another mighty battle.” But the high command was moving forces away from the likely point of attack. “We are so short of troops as to make…containment of deep enemy penetrations unthinkable,” the reports wailed in response. Especially dangerous, Hitler’s designated certain towns as “firm positions” which could not be abandoned but must be defended to the last man and bullet. Going far beyond what one would expect in a Nazi dictatorship, officers wrote in official documents of their “sense of bitterness” at their leaders’ incompetence.
They were quickly proven right. On the night of June 22, deliberately chosen by the Soviets as the anniversary of the German invasion three years earlier, the huge artillery barrage began, pinning down German defenders. A Red Army infantry and tank force advanced. The rest was an unbroken chain of victories over the next two weeks.
“My request has been turned down again,” German Field Marshal Busch told the Third Panzer Army’s headquarters, after Hitler wouldn’t let him withdraw to form a new line. Vitebsk must be held, said the fuehrer. And when that town fell he said the same about Borisov. Meanwhile, four and a half German divisions were being surrounded and destroyed. By June 28 a big hole was opening in the German lines as the Red Army pushed both northwest and southwest at a weak point, creating a gap between Army Group North and Army Group Center. The Soviets were cutting them off by seizing key bridges and roads.
“This is a madhouse!” cried out the German Ninth Army’s chief of staff. The 252nd Infantry Division was down to 300 men; whole battalions mustered only 50 soldiers each. Along a 20-mile front the Germans could fire just 44 artillery pieces. When the Germans fell back through Lepel, they were too disorganized to blow up the bridges over the Essa river.
On and on, relentlessly, came the Red Army down the road toward Dolhinov. On July 1, the Fifth Army crossed the Berezina where just two weeks previously the People’s Avengers had taken refuge exhausted and far behind the German lines. The Germans now tried to form a new line from Borisov through Dolhinov itself to block the two roads into Minsk. It was too late. Having run out of regular combat units, to plug holes in the front lines, they had to send rear-echelon troops like the 391 and 201 Security Divisions and 330th Security Battalion, formerly used only to chase the partisans, Rather than pull back, battered German units followed orders in futilely trying to defend every town and crossroads.
The Soviet Fifth Army crushed everything in its path. On July 2 alone, it advanced 20 miles freeing dozens of towns and villages. Dolhinov was captured on July 4, the Germans having retreated so quickly that they left behind two trucks full of ammunition. For the third time in two decades, the Red Army seized Dolhinov once more.
It had been just over three years, almost to the day, since the Germans had arrived in Dolhinov to find it peopled by 4,000 residents and 1,000 refugees. Only a few hundred of them remained. The town that stayed basically unchanged for four centuries was no more. Much of its center had been burned in partisan attacks. All the Jews, two-thirds’ of the population, had been murdered or fled, only a handful would briefly return. Many of the Poles, most of the other one-third, had been deported by the Soviets or run in fear of the Red Army’s return visit, never to return. Among the Byelorussians, those who’d served the Germans in the militia or other posts also fled, though some managed to join the Red Army to conceal their past deeds.
Just as they were entering Dolhinov, the Red Army also captured Minsk, Belarus’s main city, to the south. To the north, they stormed into Vilna. The offensive had destroyed 25 German divisions, killed or disabled 350,000 Nazi soldiers, and captured 57,000 prisoners. Rather than slow up their advance to guard these prisoners, the Soviets simply told them to head east and give up to the first garrison they reached. In Moscow, a victory parade was held on the scale of a Roman triumph.
With Belarus cleared of German forces, the war entered a new phase. All partisans were ordered to Minsk and in the old SS headquarters now the NKVD office they were interviewed by intelligence officers, formally enlisted in the Red Army, and given proper uniforms. A grand partisan parade was held in the main square of the mostly destroyed city among cheering crowds. A Red Army general read out, as the Order of the Day, a list of their exploits.
Among the Jewish partisans, however, feelings were mixed. As one of them recalled:
“Waves of joy overtook all hearts, and we too, the surviving Jewish partisans, were swept by it. But in the secrecy of our hearts there was sorrow and bitterness. The Order of the Day mentioned everybody, Russian and Byelorussians, Lithuanians and Poles, Latvians and Tatars…. Only we, the few solitary Jews, remained anonymous. We fought as Russians and Byelorussians and Poles, but not as Jews. So we stood and marched in the parade. Behind us were rivers of blood, our loved ones’ graves, being orphaned, loss and bereavement. In front of our eyes were waves of joy, the sound of the crowd cheering. And on this occasion, too, we were foreign and anonymous. The victory is ours, but not the joy!”