Children of Dolhinov: Our Ancestors and Ourselves » Chapter 9-Back in the BSSR
BACK IN THE BSSR
The story is told that long after he left Dolhinov and became a distinguished rabbi in America, Yakov Kaminetsky was one day sitting in a doctor’s waiting room when he spotted a Jewish boy who was obviously not religious. He grabbed a ball and began to play with the young boy. His assistant was amazed and later asked the rabbi why he had done that. Kaminetsky replied, “I saw that with this boy, it was useless to talk about Yiddishkeit or mitzvot. He came from a family so far removed from anything Jewish. I just wanted that to make him feel that a religious Jew is a good person. So I played ball with him. Who knows, perhaps this impression will one day have an effect on him and he will come closer to Torah and mitzvot.”
Eastern Poland was now free from German occupation but once more under Soviet occupation. For the Soviets, nothing had changed from June 1941 and this land was now part of the Belarus Soviet Socialist Republic, the BSSR.
Regular German soldiers were treated as prisoners of war but those in the German-backed police, informers, or collaborators were now doomed unless they ran westward first. The Soviets held military trials in which torture victims and relatives of those murdered testified, some of them crying from the painful memories recalled. Those convicted were hung before a cheering crowd of local people, including Jews returned from the forests. The tables were turned.
Partisans, including the Polish Jews among them, became regular Red Army soldiers. After a short training course, they fought through the rest of the Poland, across Czechoslovakia and into Germany itself; passing and seeing concentration camps like Auschwitz, until the last day of the war and happy encounters with British and French troops who’d crushed Germany from the west.
The last of all the Dolhinov Jews freed from German bondage was Ida Friedman. She’d been one of those who’d escaped from the work camp in 1942 to join the partisans. In late 1943, she ran with the other civilian workers to escape a German encirclement operation. Two of her new friends, non-Jewish Russian women, invited her to come live with them in their near-by village. Since she spoke Polish fluently, she’d pretend to be a Polish Catholic refugee, named Ada Wishnovska who was living with them.
No sooner then they’d arrived to the village, however, than the German army surrounded it, seized 80 young people—including Ida and her friends—and sent them as slave laborers to Germany. All the villagers knew she was Jewish but her two friends told them to say nothing. And to one woman known to hate Jews their message was stronger: “If you inform against Ida we’ll kill you,” they threatened. She remained silent.
In Germany, they were separated, put into dormitories, and set to work with captives from a dozen different countries. Of course, Ida kept to her Polish assumed identity. One day she awoke after dreaming she was back with her family to see a dozen women gathered around her bed staring at her. They had never heard Yiddish before and thought her a spy “Why,” one worker asked, “were you speaking German in your sleep?” She covered herself by saying she’d studied the language at school.
Ida turned her ability to understand German into an advantage. When the women didn’t understand their supervisors’ orders quickly enough they were beaten, so Ida was able to turn her ability to understand German into a way to protect them.
One of the workers was a woman from Warsaw who—they were not so rare, after all—hated Jews with a passion. It is impressive after Ida had been through that she could say, “I’ve seen a lot of antisemites in my life but that one was the worst.” The woman insisted that she could tell a Jew every time, even from far off. Tempting fate, Ida came closer to her and asked innocently, “What did you say?” Fortunately, the woman’s intuition on such matters was not as keen so keen as she claimed.
Finally, in 1945, they were all liberated by the American army. She had no family, no home, nothing. But at least she wasn’t alone. Two months after the war ended, still in the same dormitory, the antisemitic woman said to her, “Can you believe it? All this time we never knew that Mira is a Jew!”
Ida was so shocked she ran to find the woman who she’d been living with every day without ever guessing their mutual secret. They embraced and sobbed together for a long time. Joined by a third hidden Jew among the workers, they met up with the Jewish Brigade of the British army who helped smuggle them to Italy. There she met a Greek Jew who had survived Auschwitz and together they went up to the Land of Israel.
Some Dolhinov Jews were able to follow this same route to the newly independent country. Chaim Brunstein, who’d been a prisoner-of-war in the USSR, reunited with his family by amazing coincidence, gradually worked his way ever westward. His wife Chana, with too many memories, refused to return to Dolhinov. As a Polish army veteran, he was repatriated to that country. The Brunsteins, along with many other Dolhinov survivors and relatives, sailed from Europe across the Mediterranean to Israel in 1948 and 1949, a journey about which their ancestors had dreamed for 2,000 years, 500 of them in Dolhinov. A far smaller number steamed across the Atlantic Ocean to North America, to join long-separated relatives there..
But while in Western Europe the war’s end brought peace, in the east, the Soviets liberated each land from the Germans only to unliberate it by imposing a dictatorial regime controlled by Moscow. As victory neared so did the likelihood that Poland itself would remain defeated. The old bitter Polish-Russian antagonism reemerged after a two-year intermission for fighting the Nazis. To discredit Polish rule, the Soviets slandered them collectively as social reactionaries, collaborators, and antisemites.
For their part, the Poles accused Soviet partisans of looting farmers and attacking villages not for being pro-German but for being Polish nationalist. The historian of Polish life in the east, Professor Franciszek Sielicki, who himself grew up in Dolhinov and wrote often of the town, complained in a 1997 book:
“Villagers couldn’t stand Soviet partisans because they conducted shameful robberies. They stole whatever they could, even children’s toys [as well as] horses, cows, pigs, underwear, etc. There were many cases, when faced with resistance they hanged poor peasants by their legs, upside down, to force them into giving something.”
Whether or not this happened further north or west around Dolhinov, in that area most of those from whom supplies were taken or vengeance exacted were Byelorussians. Between June 1941 and the end of 1944 the Soviet emphasis was on fighting the Germans, not the Poles. This is not to say that the partisans always treated the local people well—the regime never even treated its own people well–but the motive for criminal behavior was individual greed, not political maneuvering.
In contrast to the actual behavior of the regime he represented and some of his comrades who abused their power, Timchuk was an idealist. His own life story, rising from the most dire poverty and oppression due to the revolution, made him a true believer. On May 1, 1942, he gathered his men in a circle, sitting on the ground in the middle of the forest, and gave them his best commissar’s speech:
“The Day of the Workers! The day of the Proletariat! The day of the International Brotherhood of the Working Class! In every place, everywhere in the world, it is a celebration. We must celebrate it with victories and military achievement against the invading enemy. We didn’t come to the forest to hide from the enemy and to be parasites on the farmers, or even the large estate owners who recently returned to the area under the wings of the enemy. We must attack the Germans and the collaborators in every place that our hands can reach. We must attack the traitorous policemen and the mayors who are enemies of the people.”
And he did not hesitate for a moment about carrying out the death sentences of which he spoke. In his memoir he wrote:
“We didn’t have mercy for those who helped Germans. We killed them and it couldn’t be any other way….Those who were against our Motherland should be killed. We killed…district chiefs, heads of police. Of course, Jews also helped in organizing these killings.”
In writing this, Timchuk was seeking to honor his Jewish fighters, to convince a Soviet regime and people which had underestimated their contribution that they, too, loved mother USSR and had done a lot to help achieve victory. But these deeds also had their cost, being seen—and magnified—by Poles as well as Lithuanians and other nationalities caught between Germans and Russians as proving the thesis that all Jews were Communists and enemies of the countries where they had been living.
It was simply one more example of the historic Jewish dilemma: the attempt—usually futile—to please one group simply produced more hatred among others. During the Czarist period, Poles and other captive nationalities accused Jews of being agents of Russian power. Then, some Jews became revolutionaries to create a new society in which all would be brothers, sacrificing their own community to show they were not aliens. The result was the massacre of the Jewish Communist leaders by Stalin, on one hand, and even more resentment by the nationalities victimized by the regime. Similarly, Jews had fought for Poland and been loyal citizens, but the ascendancy of right-wing nationalists in the mid-1930s had led to even more discrimination and oppression.
The Jews had tried to become good Germans only to unleash antisemitism by the belief they were corrupting the true German culture and identity. They had sought to prove their loyalty as Frenchman and the most assimilated and loyal of all, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, became the national scapegoat. Even at best, acceptance came largely by a jettisoning of their own identity so extreme that most could no longer even remember what it had been like to live within a wholly Jewish community. And always the push to go further and farther, to prove one was really a citizen of the globe, or selfless patriot, or benefactor of others, or architect of a brave new world of utopian social justice.
The wartime choice made by the Jews of eastern Poland was a rational one, costly as it was in some ways. With the Polish nationalists either unable to offer much or outright hostile, adherence to the Soviet side was the only hope for survival from the German onslaught during those terrible years. In the Dolhinov region, this decision was an even easier one. They rarely ever encountered Polish partisans.
On one occasion, spotting the People’s Avengers in the forest and not knowing who they were, a unit of Polish Home Army opened fire and killed the scouts’ two horses. An exchange of gunfire continued until both sides, thankfully without loss of life, realized the other’s identity and a truce was arranged. The two sides went off in different directions, fighting the same enemy but fighting separate wars.
Back in London, General Sikorski’s government-in-exile made a real attempt to be fair, aware that the best course of action was to turn Polish Jews into an ally. But the passion from the field was too intense and the Poles’ lack of resources too great, at least in the eastern part of the country. The reports arriving in London vilified Jews as enemies of Poland.
Talk of “Jewish bandits” is a mainstay of Polish partisan reports. Polish intelligence claimed that 90 percent of those being held in ghettoes were “pro-Bolshevik” A dispatch of December 20, 1942, claimed that bands of Jews alongside Byelorussian partisans attacked farms, robbing, raping, and killing civilians, terrorizing the population with “special cruelty”
Yet while Poles did suffer at the hands of partisan groups, internal Soviet reports—which have every reason to exaggerate the Jewish role—show that abuses came from non-Jews, corrupt ethnic Russian Soviet army officers. While Jews no doubt had their scoundrels, too, they were simply not in positions of power and, even more importantly, too fixated on fighting and winning the war rather than being diverted into looting, corruption, or ensuring Soviet imperial aims.
For a half-century after the war, the partisans were always treated in Soviet literature as stainless steel heroes without exception. Yet the Soviet Union’s fall brought to the surface many long-hidden internal reports which shed light on abuses that did occur.
Timchuk’s job, as secretary of the Logoysky region Communist Party Central Committee, was to act as watchdog. The Soviet system was always ripe for abuse, since there was no division of power or independent oversight, freedom of criticism, or a legitimate opposition viewpoint. At least if an honest man was at the helm locally, malefactors could be punished or intimidated. Timchuk did not hesitate to report abuses.
A focal point for misbehavior was the partisans’ procurement system. Armed groups were going to take what they needed; peasants, tired of expropriations and worried about their own livelihood, weren’t eager to give a lot away. This was why partisans had to be disciplined to take only what they needed so as not to turn the populace against them.
Timchuk understood this, and saw how sometimes unfair and greedy commanders created unneeded antagonisms. “Last year,” he wrote of one area, the peasants, “were wonderful people ready to do anything for us. Now they are the exact opposite.” In Radoshovitch village, just outside Dolhinov, peasants were so mistreated and frightened that, “on seeing partisans, they ran to hide in the forest.”
But even running away did not help them if partisan officers were rapacious. In summer 1943 a partisan detachment went on a military operation in the Logoysk area. When the battle ended, officers, seeing no people in the village, ordered that likely hiding places be searched and possessions found there seized. Timchuk wrote, “This action led to hard and hostile feelings among the people who come back from the forest and know that partisans have taken their property.”
To avoid such situations, in summer 1943, Timchuk had the regional party committee issue orders that partisans take no more than a half-liter of milk and ten eggs from any one household. From any one farm they could take no more than 520 pounds of grain and 725 pounds of potatoes. Commands and punishments brought some results, Timchuk recorded. The local peasants stopped referring to the Death to Fascists unit as “Death to Pigs and Fright to Cows.”
The unit with the worst problem was the Kutusov brigade, formed in December 1942, whose operational territory included Dolhinov. The implication of that late start date was that all the top officers were Red Army men sent out from headquarters. Its behavior was so bad that the group’s top commander and one of his chief lieutenants were shot for their crimes.
Brigade commander Mitrofan Krasenkov became a major black marketeer. First, horses, cows, sheep, bread, and other things were confiscated from peasants under the guise of being used to provision partisans. Then the items were sold in Minsk, the money earned used to buy vodka, cigarettes and tobacco, ladies’ hosiery, shoes, and leather coats that were handed out among the top officers.
Expanding the operation, in April 1943, Krasenkov hired two gypsies as front men. When Timchuk learned about these schemes in July and opened an investigation, Krasenkov ordered one of his men, a soldier named Nasedkin, to kill the two gypsies because they knew too much. The excuse used was that they had betrayed the location of underground safe houses to the Germans.
Another officer in this unit, Tsygankov, was also sentenced to death for a range of additional crimes. Having lost a battle with the Germans, a report charged, “He burst into rage and ordered Staiki village be set on fire. Half the homes, 64 in all, were destroyed. The unit’s chief of staff, Vladimir Kobylkin, gave a whipping to a 60-year-old farmer only because the man made him a hat “which was different from what he’d ordered.” The farmer wrote a letter of complaint, fatalistically saying, “Well then we have to suffer from such adversities because there’s no one higher than he is so he can do whatever he wants with anyone”.
Timchuk insisted on personally seeing the victim’s wounds and despite all the horrors he’d already witnessed was appalled: “It was something awful. All his body was black and blue.” Later, Timchuk was clearly pleased to tell the surprised peasant that Kobylkin had been executed partly as a result of his testimony.
In some of their shenanigans the ill-fated Krasenkov and Tsygankov also roped in Timchuk’s own military commander, Voronyansky. The three men were married to sisters and they spent too much of their time partying at their mutual mother-in-law’s house. But that wasn’t all. Voronyansky’s marriage was already married with children. Himself over 40, his new second, wife Lisa Babitskaya was just 22. He figured that since he was probably going to get killed any way he might as well have a good time, so reported Voronyansky’s own chief of staff Captain Sergin who had worked with Timchuk to try to block these bigamous weddings.
Timchuk wrote: “Women are used wrongly in partisan groups. Usually they work as cooks or `wives,’ [that is, paramours] of officers. These `wives’ have a bad influence on fighters who try to get better food and good clothes from local people. When you take boots, pans, and a shirt from a civilian you are already halfway to disaster. But when you take a woman’s dress from a family it really causes anger.”
Local Byelorussian women who shacked up with the Russian officers were able to provide their relatives well with material goods. Chief of Staff Yakov Chumakov, one of “Voronyansky’s lickspittles,” even ordered two partisans to find his wife two outfits, a mission resulting in the death of one of them, a soldier named Egorov.
Sergin disgustedly reports that Voronyansky’s wife was awarded the Order of the Red Star for “sleeping with the commander and cooking for him.” While Voronyansky had organized a coterie of “lickspittles” which always backed him up, the medal affair nearly split the group. Some asked to hold a meeting to discuss the issue; about three dozen others just transferred to other units. Voronyansky got away with it, was promoted to colonel, and tried to get rid of Timchuk, who he’d obviously recognized as a party-pooper. That was a big mistake on his part given their relative standing with the party and NKVD. Only the fact that Voronyansky was killed in the August 1943 plane crash saved him from being called to account.
It is no mere cliché to say that Russians are fond of vodka and “hard drinking is the biggest evil of the partisan movement,” Timchuk complained. In spring 1943 he sent all commanders an order “to disarm and arrest drunkards.” Any local farmers who made alcohol could be sentenced to death, though this was never enforced. Indeed a Byelorussian journalist sagely noted much later, “It does not seem that such restrictions could frighten people who were on the edge of death. It would have been more dangerous to follow the orders and face angry men demanding vodka.”
Strong drink became even more important because the partisans had so few opportunities for entertainment. One of the rare such chances was when they captured a camel that had been part of the private zoo for a landowner whose estate they raided. Their chef suggested cooking it as it would feed the whole unit but most thought it would make a better mascot than meal. They put posters on the hump, on one side reading, “Death to the German occupiers!” and on the other, “Danger! Mines!” in Russian and German. Then they released the camel just outside a town with a German garrison.
This was an occasion when misinforming the enemy was welcome. But for the partisans it was unacceptable to lie about their own operations.
On one occasion, a People’s Avengers company commander named Sergey Prochko was given a detachment of ten partisans and sent on a mission. “Instead of completing the task he spent a month going from one village to another because he needed to find boots for his wife.” After returning to camp he was awarded the Order of the Red Star.
Reporting exaggerated accomplishments was commonplace. In early summer 1943, a group of partisans commanded by a soldier named Drapek blew up a train. They claimed to have having destroyed a locomotive and 14 cars. Timchuk wrote sarcastically:
“In an hour this report had been revised to say 19 cars were destroyed. After conversing with the commander, Krasenkov, the next version of the report said that 39 cars had been blown up.” This number was raised to 64 cars. Meanwhile, another unit claimed to have blown up the same train with 57 cars.”
Worst of all was military incompetence. Here’s a critical report by Timchuk from May 1943, at the start of the German offensive:
“There was complete confusion among the officers. The worst was in the People’s Avengers and another brigade. Two ‘heroic’ officers retreated. The first left ammunition and TNT behind in his camp. The second lost his radio operator. The local people were quite critical of us. A group of farmers told us: `If you’re running from the Germans, give us guns. We’ll defend ourselves.’”
The modern age seems to hate heroism. Nothing about these failures and human frailties really detracts from what the partisans achieved. It does not prove they were not heroes but only that they were human, that power corrupts, that always some men are bad, and that all need proper discipline and supervision. Indeed, these stories show that the great majority who resisted temptations were even more heroic and devoted than they’ve been given credit for.
There’s something else that stands out here as well. Abuses were conducted by Soviet citizens who were ethnic Russians, products of the Stalinist system. Far from home, they’d escaped the dictatorial restrictions under which they lived while having the chance to become little dictators themselves. Moreover, living it up was justified by hard struggles and constant brushes with death which meant they soon might not be living at all.
For the Jews among the partisans, though, this war was serious business. These men were not careerists looking for enrichment or promotion. And for them words like “fascists” were no mere slogans. They were in it for three things: survival, winning the war and destroying the Nazis; and revenge on those directly responsible for murdering their people and their own families. As the first two goals were fulfilled, the importance of the third goal rose, especially for Sigalchik:
“The need to get revenge on all the killers without uniforms who were running free, people who were our neighbors and then became our killers, could not let go of me. So I used every free day. I had to get revenge.”
His first step was to ask Timchuk to let him find the killers in the village of Kamin. Here is this little place again, where my family worked 300 years ago, where Cybulski saved so many lives, the place by the river that helped Jewish refugees get across the river to the partisan. But it also harbored some of the killers who had gone into Dolhinov to help the Germans and to loot.
And there was one man in particular Sigalchik wanted, who stood out even amidst the many collaborators and murderers: Jan Ruzietski.
Ruzietski was the man, who out of hatred or for reward, had gone to the Germans to tell them how to find a group of refugees, mainly old people and children, fleeing Miyadal under the Blechmann’s leadership. Due to his deeds, 37 died, many of them Sigalchik’s friends or acquaintances.
Timchuk sighed and said, “If we will spend this time taking revenge, we will have to punish about 90 percent of the population for collaborating with the enemy on the killings. You can go to Kamyin and bring Jan Ruzietski here, but you must not kill him. All I will allow you to do is to beat them up so they will remember that they must respect human beings.”
For once, Timchuk was speaking outside the Marxist perspective that seemed to govern his life. This was not in the framework of some class struggle where the masses were rising up against the fascist aggressors. It was the cynical view of a man who had seen too much human nature break the proper boundaries, even among his closest comrades.
Sigalchik later wrote, “I understood his message.”
But I’m not quite sure what Sigalchik meant. The most obvious reading was that Timchuk was saying something like, Do what you want but I’m not responsible for it. Or: Let him be shot trying to escape.
Yet I’m not quite sure. If Sigalchik accurately recorded the conversation he certainly wasn’t saying: Bring him in for trial. So perhaps Sigalchik’s implication was right. Yet given later events—and Sigalchik must have known where this would lead—I still have my doubts.
At any rate, Sigalchik took ten men and arrived at the village around midnight. They simply knocked on the door of Ruzietski’s house. An old woman was there and told him Ruzietski wasn’t. He slept in Dolhinov, perhaps because he felt safer under German protection, or maybe for some extraneous reason, one of a thousand details authors should not be careless in assuming.
Disappointed, Sigalchik went on to his secondary target, the Novtisky family who had looted the Jews of Miyadel. Once again, he knocked on the door and it opened. Sigalchik ordered them to return their ill-gotten gains. Only when his men started the beatings did they bring out items. Three later died from their injuries. Hidden from behind the oven came clothes stained with blood, the boots of little children, the dresses of women.
Ruzietski would have to wait.
Was what Sigalchik did wrong? It certainly was against orders. All the details I don’t know, but these people continued to be German informants, activity the partisans punished with the death sentence. Death for looting seems excessive; death for involvement in mass murder seems right. Sigalchik’s next case was beyond question.
A man named Ignolia lived in the village of Dubricka. He and his daughter helped the Nazis by informing on Dolhinov’s Jews and then robbed the victims. In the summer of 1942, he met a young Jewish woman from Dolhinov named Resa Schmerkovicz who had escaped from the ghetto. He beat her up, stole her money, tied her up and tortured her. Then she took her into Dolhinov and turned her over to the Germans and local police who tortured her to death. This story reminds us of why Jews simply didn’t flee into the countryside.
In February 1943, Sigalchik’s group knocked on the door of Ignolia’s house. An old woman opened the door and said he was sick. Sigalchik replied with bitter irony that he had with him a doctor who could cure any illness and pointed to one of his men, David Glasser, who looked like he might be of the medical profession.
They found Ignolia leaning on the oven with his head covered by a wet towel. When Sigalchik ordered him to stand, Ignolia said he had typhus and couldn’t. So Sigalchik and one of his soldiers named Menashe Kaye pulled him up by his hair. Glasser counted blows as they hit him while Sigalchik recounted his crimes. So important was Ignolia as a German informant that a large party of police came and took him to the hospital in Dolhinov. But he died the next day.
And then in mid-March 1943, Sigalchik was made commander of the brigade medical unit, with 12 armed partisans under him to ensure the hospital and patients’ security and gather food and supplies for them. This allowed Sigalchik to travel around the countryside where he wished, giving him ample opportunities to pursue his other, self-assigned mission.
One day in the fall of 1943, Segalchik with Avraham Friedman and two other men was sent on a foraging expedition near German-held Krivichi. They decided to enter Protniki village, which partisans had always avoided because it was near a German army barracks. There resided a family named Kamaiko which had helped to catch and kill many Jews. Leaving the supply wagons nearby, the partisans broke into the house and found it full of furniture, money and other stolen goods.
They gathered up anything useful for the hospital then beat up the thieves, only stopping due to lacking official permission to shoot them. Later, Sigalchik found that one had died and the rest had been hospitalized for a long time. He felt some justice had been done but did not intend to stop there.
Once again Sigalchik’s thoughts turned to Ruzetski and he had some new information. Friendly villagers, whose lives were also threatened by the informers’ activities, told Sigalchik that Ruzetski often slept at his aunt’s house in Kamyunka. Early one morning, Sigalchik led a detachment there. A young man of about 20 years old was sleeping there. The woman claimed he was her son. Sigalchik said that if this was her son she should be punished, too. She admitted he was her husband’s nephew.
Sigalchik tied Ruzetski’s hands behind his back and took him to villagers who affirmed that he was the one who was the German agent in Dolhinov who’d had betrayed the Miyadel refugees.
“You can choose your death,” Sigalchik told him, “If you will confess immediately we will shoot you. If not, we will cut you up.” He said nothing, so they took him to the river, where the Myadel refugees had been killed.
When they got there, with the rushing water’s incongruously soothing sound contrasting with the tension of the small group of men, Sigalchik ordered, “Tie his legs together!” They threw the rope over a high branch on a pine tree and hauled on it so Ruzetski was hanging upside down. While he was kicking and screaming, a couple of Sigalchik’s men searched the area and collected torn pieces of clothing still there from the murdered Miyadel victims. Two more gathered dry sticks. The last remnants of his victims were used to kindle a fire under him. The fire flared up and Ruzetski died horribly as the partisans watched. In Sigalchik’s words, “He was burned next to his victims’ graveyard. We stuck a document to the burnt pine tree that said, `Revenge of the People,’” both a sentiment and the appropriate name of their unit.
Strange what had happened to the quiet, passive Jews of Dolhinov who for centuries had never engaged in violence, always turned the other cheek. Later, when almost all of them were dead, the world professed to have liked them that way. But it did not protect them in that habitat and so, on the verge of extinction, they had to change their ways to survive at all.
It would have been easy for Sigalchik to turn over the collaborators and agents to the partisans for trial. But then it would have been the Soviets who were dealing out justice. What were they to him? Why should a new dependence be placed on still another foreigner’s will by people no longer accepting powerlessness as a badge of honor?
Still, if I had been there I would have simply put a bullet through Ruzetski’s head. Such actions, it should be remembered, were not mere revenge but also part of the war effort, to destroy the Germans network of informants.
Finally, Sigalchik was ready to go after the main murderers in Dolhinov itself: Mikhail Proclowicz and the Tarahovitz brothers who he described as “men who showed no mercy, not even to children.” Gathering intelligence, Varovka, a villager who hated them, found out that Proclowicz had returned to his farm after a year in hiding, assuming that he was now safe.
One clear, cold night in December 1943, Gershon Yafeh, Biyanish Kuzinitz, Dimka Traikovsky and Sigalchik travelled by sled to Proclowicz’s home. They knocked on a window and he opened his door clad in fur coat and boots, surprised to be facing their gun barrels. “Hands up! Get inside!” they ordered. Sigalchik recounted what happened next:
“We turned on lights, and when he recognized us he started shaking. He begged us not to shoot him, but he saw that his death was coming. I asked him how many Jews had he killed and where were all the possessions that he had stolen from his victims. I ordered him to return everything, saying, `If you will return all that we want, we won’t kill you. We’ll just beat you up.’”
“He called his wife and told her to return all the possessions from the hideout, which he’d buried in a deep hole in the ground, which was covered with snow. We sent one of our men with her to check on it, and we found a large amount of robbed possessions about a hundred meters from the house. I became furious. I yelled, `Confess and tell us how many Jews you killed! How many mothers asked for mercy for their babies?’ I started cursing at him violently and uncontrollably. I was crazed. `You must take responsibility and die the death due to an evil and wretched person.’ I shot him in his head and he dropped dead.”
Now came his last, most important revenge on the murderers of his own mother. In May 1942, Sigalchik’s mother along with Gashka and Nyakha Katzowitz were fleeing to the forest. The Tarhovitz brothers and Dolhinov’s police chief chased them down on bicycles and forced them back to town, beating them on the way. After hours of torture they were shot near the Jewish cemetery. Segalchik had also seen personally their involvement in the death of the Shimshel, Dukshitzi, and Leviczi families.
But how? They lived on Dolhinov’s far edge right next to a house which had been turned into the main German stronghold. Sigalchik bided his time. Finally, an opportunity came to him. In mid-February 1944 an important delegation was coming to the brigade’s headquarters and he was asked to get supplies for properly feeding the guests. Sigalchik told an officer that this was a very difficult mission and there was no place near the base such luxury items could be found. He’d have to take a force into Dolhinov of 16 men in order to assure success.
The plan was approved and he was given a squad headed by Major Tzonkov plus the four most trusted men from his own unit. At sunset they left on four large sleds harnessed to fast horses, arriving near Dolhinov at 10 pm. After Sigalchik paid a short visit with his informant, Varovka, they deployed near the large home of the Tarhovitz brothers. Two snipers were detached to watch the road to the center of town and the German barracks, ready to pin down with accurate fire anyone coming from that direction.
The assault team went on to the Tarhovitz brothers’ compound. The pounded on the door, ordering those inside to open the door, turn on the lights, and close the curtains. Forcing their prisoners to open the cowshed and horse stables, Segalchik delegated six men to herd the six cows and four horses to the forest. The other four partisans loaded bread, lard, flour, salt, beans, and other foods onto the sleds. They also took pillows, blankets, and sheets looted from Jewish homes for use in the hospital.
Then Sigalchik ordered the brothers, barefoot and dressed only in their underwear outside. They were forced to run along with the retreating raiding group through the freezing winter night. The wives of the kidnapped men began to scream and the confused Germans next door opened up with automatic weapons. But it was too late. The group was already outside town and racing away at top speed. After they were in the clear, Sigalchik quickly ordered the procession onto a side road, shot the two men right in front of the surprised Tzonkov and his men–who had no idea what Sigalchik was doing–and headed back to their base as fast as possible.
Sigalchik, having procured ample supplies, thought all was well and returned to the hospital. He was surprised the next morning to be summoned to headquarters. Tzonkov had reported the shootings, which seemed random acts of violence in what was supposed to be just a food-gathering mission. The top officers of the People’s Avengers brigade and the Kutuzov brigade, responsible for Dolhinov, were standing inside staring at him with hostility. Sigalchik snapped to attention and saluted, “Commander of the hospital unit here as ordered, sir!”
The officers had no idea of why Sigalchik had acted as he did during the raid. The brigade commander asked, “Who gave you permission to shoot two peaceful residents?”
“No one gave me permission. My conscience and my need for revenge gave me liberty to do that. I only did what was my duty, which was to get revenge for my murdered mother and my people who fell at the hands of those two cruel, evil murderers who you called peaceful citizens. They killed my mother, my sister and Jewish brothers. They were wading elbow-deep in the blood of Jews. I had to do it, and I did it as a loyal son to my mother and my nation.”
If Sigalchik recorded his words accurately, it was curious he used the phrase “my nation,” which would have been enough to have him condemned for reactionary nationalism and shot even if he’d done nothing else. I suspect that is what he thought but did not actually use that phrase. He knew that everything had to be justified in the interest of the Soviet, not Jewish, people. And that, of course, was part of the bind that the Jewish partisans and refugees were caught in.
The commander called his assistant and ordered him to be arrested and his pistol confiscated. And so, under guard, Sigalchik was taken off to the brig, a dark, dank mud hut. Sigalchik thought his good record and many friends among top officers would protect him. Still, he also had no regrets and told himself that if the worst came, “I will not be afraid. I will look them straight in their eyes before my death.”
After a few hours, the head of the NKVD unit, Girshenko, came to interrogate him. Sigalchik saw this as a good omen since Girshenko was an old friend he’d once cared for in the hospital. The secret policeman asked for Sigalchik’s account of what had happened and wrote it down in his file. As he left, Girshenko chortled, “Don’t worry, Segalchik. Everything will turn out ok.”
The prisoner was taken back to the brigade office, with all the top officers standing there. And a junior commissar made a speech:
“Your crime was very severe as far as the political managing and morals accepted by us. Even if those men deserved a capital punishment, you were forbidden from doing it in such a way. The way you did it vilified the image of our cause and its struggles in the eyes of the population, which is being oppressed by an invading force. I have no doubt that you deserve the most severe punishment. Talking truthfully we must put you through a quick trial here in the field, and I have the authority to give you a summary execution. But when I look at your past, which is clear of all crimes and I take into account all your great deeds and achievements in the fight of our Soviet Union, and consider your service to the brigade of partisans that you belong to, we have decided to forgive your huge crime with a warning that you must never in the future do what you have done.”
Not long after, on June 26, 1944, the People’s Avengers linked up with the advancing Red Army. And eight days later, Dolhinov was liberated from the Germans though not necessarily liberated by the Soviets.
Hearing that Dolhinov had been recaptured, some of the Peoples’ Avengers partisans took teenaged Esther Telis, the last survivor of her immediate family, back there. She was the first Jew to return openly in more than two years. Looking for her family home, she found only an empty lot. A neighbor family whose son was in the police had taken it apart and reassembled it on their own property.
The little girl could not visualize demanding back her whole house, and there was no one left to live in it. But at least she could get something back. Those who collaborated were now afraid of the ghosts they had helped persecute. Having merely served in the collaborationist police now carried with it a death sentence. Telis marched up to the policeman’s mother, sitting outside watching her every step closer with clear hatred and growing dismay. Right in front o her, Esther stopped and announced in a loud voice: “I know you have my bicycle so give it to me or else!”
”Ï have it! I have it!” the woman admitted with panic in her voice and ran to get the bicycle. She quickly brought it out and handed it to Telis. And so Esther, who lived temporarily outside town with the peasant family that had hidden her, possessed no family, no home, and seemingly no future, but at least she could feel like a queen, riding around on her bicycle after so many months of concealing herself behind a stove, marching through the forests, and hiding in the swamps. She soon headed westward.
One night during that terrible time during the war when survival for another year had seemed as if it would be the most marvelous of all miracles, Esther had pondered the future and decided, “If anybody survives this war everybody will love everybody and it will be a real utopia.” But within a year of the war’s end she would be hiding from a pogrom in Poland.
That same collapse of expectations, or at least disappointment of hopes, came to many in those days. Despite the commissar’s fine words at Segalchik’s trial, the Soviets had never been particularly picky about legality or courteous in their treatment of Poland’s people. Even before the Germans had been expelled from eastern Poland, Soviet authorities were announcing that their 1939 annexation of eastern Poland was valid. The Poles still rejected this but were powerless to do anything.
Hitler had been defeated but the Polish-Russian battle to follow was conducted in the same spirit as Germany’s pre-war aggressions. Stalin demanded almost half of Poland, all the land he’d seized with his Nazi allies in 1939. Beyond that, he was imposing his direct control on Poland itself. The Soviet goal was Poland’s destruction as a truly independent nation, whether or not it still appeared on the map. Unwilling to confront their needed Soviet ally–either to disrupt the war effort or end up having to fight a new one–the United States and Britain agreed. No one bothered to inform the Poles themselves, who continued to fight heroically believing they were liberating their country.
In July 1944, the Polish underground in Warsaw rose in rebellion, ironically the same day the Polish Armored Division arrived in France to fight its way home. The Polish Home Army knew the Soviets were just a few miles away and assumed they would continue to advance, leaving the Poles themselves in control of their capital. Instead, Stalin ordered his armies to stand still for six weeks until the Germans crushed the rebellion.
Moscow turned down British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s appeals to at least let Allied planes drop supplies for the Poles. The same goal that shaped Soviet collaboration with the Nazis to partition Poland still prevailed. Except now, with no other dictatorship to split with, Stalin wanted everything for himself. The Americans and British did not have much trouble accepting Stalin’s demanded border rather than endanger their alliance while Hitler was still in power and perhaps start a new war afterward.
Dolhinov was back in the USSR or, more specifically, in the BSSR—the Byelorussia Soviet Socialist Republic.Most of the Jews who had survived in the Dolhinov area wanted to sail away from Europe altogether, tired of fighting other people’s battles while being unwelcome guests in other’s people’s countries. They wanted to go to the land of Israel. But that, too, would be a long and perilous road and some would remain unwilling guests of the Soviet Union for more than a dozen years more.
Belarus was so devastated that it would take fifty years for the population to return to the prewar level. Indeed the region might have been more damaged by the fighting than any other place in Europe. One-third of its people had been killed, deported, or fled; half of those left were homeless. The Jewish population had fallen by 80 percent. Of 900,000 Jews, 700,000 had died and few of those who survived would ever return. The gaps were filled by ethnic Russian settlers.
As for those few Jews who wanted to return to the shtetls where would they live and how could they make a living? Their homes had been destroyed or stolen by neighbors who disassembled building to fix their own houses, or even physically moved the small houses onto their own property. To get stolen property returned was almost impossible. One returning Jewish refugee girl marched up to a neighbor and successfully demanded back her bicycle by implying she’d turn them in as looters otherwise. A young man who demanded his family’s house back was shot dead by a Soviet soldier, bribed with a bottle or two of vodka by the neighbors who’d seized the property.
As for businesses nationalized by the Soviets in 1939 or even the surviving synagogue buildings and ritual bath, these were now state property and there was no hope of having them returned. Religious structures built and paid for by the community were now warehouses.
For Sigalchik, now working for the NKVD, bitterness was mitigated by the reuniting of his family. His daughter, hidden with a peasant family during the war, was returned to him. In October 1944, he was summoned to town hall; told, “Your wife is alive!;” and handed a postcard from her. With great excitement and shaking hands he read the note written in Stalingrad and was elated. After some months he received permission to go bring her back with him. Her father-in-law who Segalchik once rescued, however, had died in a partisan camp during the war.
Only ten Jewish families returned to Dolhinov–three dozen people where there’d once been a hundred times that number. Among them were Sigalchik and Avraham Friedman. None of the deported Poles came back. So many had left, so many died, so much destroyed, that the once-thriving town was now little more than a large village.
Sigalchik gave Dolhinov’s eulogy: “Alone, I walked along the ruins. Nothing was left of my mother’s house. The town had once excited our hearts with its colorful character, giving us once-youthful dreamers hopes a better future, but now it lay under my feet, burnt and silent.”
Was there, however, a better future under Communism? The BSSR united eastern Belarus, under Soviet rule since 1917, with the western lands ruled by Poland until 1939. Before the war, the Belarus Communist party in the Soviet sector had been 21.6 percent Jewish, though they comprised only 8 percent of the whole population. By 1945, however, after their decimation and the party’s expansion, Jews were only 9.2 percent of members. But Jews held many good jobs, being 16 percent of professional employees in the BSSR’s scientific and cultural institutions; 23 percent in media and publishing.
There were elements here of the traditional social pattern in which Jews had little or no political power but filled middlemen roles. As in Poland before the war, these were jobs other groups wanted so traditional antisemitism mixed with economic resentments.
Unlike pre-war Poland, however, the Communist system claimed to integrate all peoples on an equal basis. Nationalism and religious distinctions were not permitted subjects of conversation in the USSR even though this was the true nature of the conflict. Instead, though, antisemitism traveled under the guise of ideology. Jews had been reviled in Poland as agents of Communism. Now, in the USSR, they would be persecuted as alleged agents of capitalism. Equally, having abandoned language, religion, and community from a mix of Communist convictions, repression, and indoctrination, Soviet Jews were now charged with being nationalists who put their people’s own interests first.
The state refused to recognize them as a community. Thus, no special Jewish suffering or contribution to the victory could be mentioned in their defense. As a result, Jews were accused of having been shirkers and cowards who’d done little to win the war. Since the Shoah was also a banned topic, Jewish victims could request no special help or compensation. Monuments to the dead merely mentioned “peaceful civilians” or “Soviet citizens.” No inscription could be in Hebrew or Yiddish.
As for religion, it was no longer supposed to exist. In effect, Judaism itself was banned. Only three synagogues were allowed to be open in all of Belarus, and those all in big cities, inaccessible to anyone living in towns. Kosher food, matzot, religious weddings or funerals, the training of rabbis, the education of children, and the production of religious literature were all either illegal or virtually impossible. Only the Nazis had undertaken such a systematic suppression in modern times.
On top of all this, it was forbidden for Jews to make accusations of antisemitism since this was defined by the regime as existing only under capitalism and something which no longer existed in the worker’s homeland. Jews as individuals might do well—albeit, in many cases, only temporarily—but as a group they were helpless, dependent on the good will of the state and the majority population to a greater extent than under Polish rule.
In August 1946, the Soviet Communist party’s chief ideologue, Andrei Zhdanov followed by decisions of the Central Committee opened the assault by criticizing Jewish writers for lacking proper ideology and displaying nationalism. An anti-Jewish campaign was launched blaming Jews for being too interested in their own heritage, pro-Western, and undermining Soviet (which really meant Russian, or in Belarus, Byelorussian) culture.
While Soviet paranoia was intensified by Israel’s creation as a Jewish state, this does not explain a campaign against Jews and antisemitic policies which began well before Israel’s independence in 1948 and even at a time when the USSR supported it.
In fact, far from being only a product of Stalin’s personal paranoia, the campaign was actually a continuation of Czarist-era antisemitism with the additional factor of seeking to make the regime more popular with ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians. It also revived the traditional Jewish paradox. On one hand, Jews were accused of being “rootless cosmopolitans,” that is, in effect, not real Russians. On the other hand, they were accused of being bourgeois nationalists, that is, in effect, real Jews.
The ethnic conflict had been cushioned and limited for centuries by Dolhinov’s tri-national society and largely by Poland’s laissez-faire policy. Then the Germans had launched an all-out war on the physical existence of Jews. Now the Soviets sought to break the identity of the Jews as people and religion while also destroying the professional advantages they had achieved through hard work and education. This goal was pursued by the destruction of all religious, social, and educational institutions as well as by banning their language, Yiddish.
If anyone might have led an organized protest, it was Salomon Michoels, director of the Moscow Jewish Theater, and chairman of the Jewish Antifascist Committee of the USSR. That is precisely why Stalin ordered him murdered by staging a phony auto accident in January 1948 during Michoels’ visit to Minsk. The committee was dissolved and Michoels posthumously denounced as a traitor. In Belarus, remaining Jewish cultural institutions were closed; Jews working in the mainstream ones were fired.
In the film industry, for example, Soviet leaders accused Jews of bringing “alien” influences. Alien nominally meant capitalist and not Communist, but what it really meant was: Western, not Slavic; Jewish, not Russian. Jewish officials were accused of incompetence, greed, venality, nepotism, and pursuing selfish national aims to the detriment of the people’s interests. For some reason, their non-Jewish colleagues seemed to evince none of these characteristics.
In 1947 the BSSR’s Minister for Cinematography Nikolai Sadkovich complained that Jewish employees prevented the employment of Byelorussians, presumably by holding the jobs themselves. He demanded that Jewish directors be fired and replaced by politically proper—that is, non-Jewish—cadre. If those now hired were not qualified professionally, it was more important that they were qualified by their ethnic background.
Sigalchik was among those who lost their jobs in these purges. One day he was called into headquarters and fired on the grounds that he had relatives living outside the country, a rule often used to get rid of Jews. This was just the beginning. Having lost his family’s house in Dolhinov, Sigalchik had built a new one in Radishkovicz, a nearby village He had hired people to help in this work, including a German prisoner-of-war (tens of thousands of them were kept for years in the USSR after the war). Now Sigalchik was charged with the criminal offense of using a prisoner for personal profit. He was sentenced to a long prison term.
The irony was thick. Having risked his life on behalf of the USSR for four years in wartime, he had now lost his own freedom to it. In prison, he found that most of the other inmates were Jews who’d also been purged and arrested. Soon, he was sent as a slave laborer to sub-Arctic Siberia, helping to build a bridge in hellishly icy weather. But by this time, Sigalchik had become an expert on survival. He befriended a prisoner who was a barber and persuaded the man to teach his trade. And so when Sigalchik was transferred to Murmansk, he talked the local barber—his way smoothed by a bribe–to give him a job as an assistant. And so Sigalchik passed eight years in the Gulag.
Meanwhile, after a brief hiatus, the Soviet anti-Jewish campaign intensified in the winter of 1952-1953 with a bloody outcome. Several dozen Jewish writers and artists were murdered between August 1952 and January 1953, including two Hebrew teachers after whom the street I live on is named as a memorial. Others died in prison. In January 1953 several doctors to the Soviet elite were arrested and charged with murdering some of the country’s leaders and planning to do away with others.
Especially in the first three months of 1953, Jews lived once again in an atmosphere of fear within and hatred all around them. As Leonid Smilovitsky, the historian of Belarus Jewry, put it, “The illusion of having re-established a `normal’ life after the suffering of the Shoah was painfully shattered.” Only Stalin’s death in March 1953, many experts believe, stopped wholesale deportations of Soviet Jews.
There is one small detail I find especially chilling. One day during this period, Leon Rubin and other Jews in Dolhinov saw the visit of a delegation of high-ranking KGB officers, who stood out in their expensive, distinctive white shearling coats. They toured the town and made lists of Jews for future arrest and expulsion from the area. It was an eerie reenactment of how the SS used to operate before a massacre, taking a look over those they were about to wipe out.
And yet, such is the power of indoctrination that Leon, the youngest Holocaust survivor in Dolhinov, among the last three Jewish children to grow up there, was so conditioned that he cried when Stalin died. In that new version of that traditional Russian belief that if only the czar knew what was going on he would step in and save the people, Stalin was held blameless for what his underlings were doing. Perhaps this was in part a last refuge of that powerful human self-soothing mechanism we call wishful thinking, the only hope of those who had no other, an echo of those in the ghetto yearning for divine rescue.
For Sigalchik, however, there was a real savior; two of them in fact. While he was imprisoned, his wife and two small children had no source of support and barely hung on to half the house he’d built. His old friend Leib Mindel, whose life he’d saved by going back into the ghetto at great risk to his own life, supported them while also sending food packages to Sigalchik in prison.
After a great deal of hesitation, fearing rejection or worse, he approached his old commander, Timchuk, now a high-ranking government official. Timchuk’s reaction was sharp but hostile in a totally different way from what Mindel had feared. Rather than rebuking Mindel for approaching him at all, Timchuk angrily asked, “Why didn’t you come sooner?”
Immediately he wrote a request that Sigalchik be pardoned, describing his fighting record and many medals earned. Miraculously, it worked. In May 1956, Sigalchik was released from prison. But he knew there was no future for him in the USSR.
While Sigalchik was running afoul of the KGB, Leon Rubin was growing up Soviet in Dolhinov. His father simply hadn’t been able to decide where to go after the war. Returning home was the easiest alternative. Leon was not only active in the Young Communists, he was the group’s leader in his high school, which he finished in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death.
All that time, Leon realized years later, he’d never visited the Jewish cemetery, where his ancestors were interred, or thought about the site where hundreds of Shoah victims were buried in a mass grave, though he was living just five minutes’ walk from those places.
Then everything changed once again. In 1956, the Soviets felt so confident of their domination over Poland that they agreed to allow pre-war Polish citizens to leave the USSR and return there, even if their hometowns were no longer located in that country. No apology or compensation was offered for their being held unwillingly in the USSR for 11 years after the war.
Everyone was eager to get out of the Soviet Union. Ethnic Poles wanted to return to Poland, but Jews thought of it only as a gateway out of Europe altogether. Leon, who’d since taken his master’s degree in physics in Vilna, easily shed his youthful indoctrination. His brother Arieh was already in Israel, having literally walked from the USSR to Italy in 1946 to take a ship there. Leon and the rest of the family finally were able to get out of Poland and join him in 1958. He met them at the pier. It was the first time the family had been reunited in 15 years. Leon expected that Israel was all desert and he would be driving a tractor amidst camels. Instead, he became a high school physics teacher.
By the war’s end, the Katzovitz family was scattered all over the USSR. Chaia Katzovitz and her mother both wrote Dolhinov’s mayor who put them in touch with each other. They didn’t find her sister Bushke until 1946. Together they were finally able, in Chaia’s words, to go “to reach the place mother determined we should live in during the very dark days” when they had been hiding in the bushes from the Nazis, “We arrived in Eretz Israel.”
Everyone who had survived now had their own story of how they escaped from Communist Poland or the USSR. David Shinuk, having been on the Kisilev march, enlisted in the Red Army and was sent to a unit using the new Katyusha rockets. One day, he was ordered to headquarters where a high-ranking officer screamed at him that he was a traitor. The reason was that Shinuk had supposedly served in the Austrian army in World War One fighting the Russians. David logically pointed out that he was only nineteen years old and they’d confused him with his father. It didn’t matter. He was told his alternatives were prison or to join the Polish army. He chose the latter.
Returning to Poland after the war and being the only Jew in his unit, he had faced a lot of antisemitism and, in reaction, become very distant from his Jewish roots. He constantly heard that Jews were not “real fighters.” Ashamed of being Jewish, on leaving the army in 1946 he registered under a false name as a Polish Catholic. Then one day while on leave, by accident, he met Eli Maisel from Dolhinov. Shocked by Shinuk’s story, Maisel convinced him to help the Zionist cause. Shinuk helped Jews escape from Poland, went to Israel himself, and served in the War of Independence.
The last of those Jews who made it back to Dolhinov in the mid-1950s was Chaim Grosbein, whose family had been murdered when he was only six years old, was lost on the march, and survived all by himself in the forest for month. When he finished his service in the Red Army, he only remembered one word from his past: Dolhinov. Arriving there, he knocked on the door of one of the remaining Jewish families. People were shocked as if by seeing a ghost since he looked like his dead father. He, too, made it to Israel where he built a warm and loving family to replace—as much as one can do that—the one he’d lost and barely remembered.
As for Sigalchik, he couldn’t wait to get out and at last succeeded in doing so, though this required considerable bribes. And so he ends his autobiography:
“Finally, on October 20, 1958, we arrived in Israel. It would be very difficult for me to express the deep emotions I had when I arrived in the country. A few years later I had a successful farm with cows and other livestock. With the hard toil of my wife and son we were very successful and I was able to give an education to my children. It seems like everything was fine….It seemed that no dark clouds would come to our lives. We would see happiness in our children and grandchildren.”
But Sigalchik was not yet able to be at rest. After some years of peace and happiness, he quite ill, had to sell his farm, and move to the dry desert climate in Arad. He died there in 1982.
Almost on that exact day in far-off Minsk, Timchuk also died, on October 17, 1982. He had headed Belarus’s Committee for Governmental Planning from 1960 to 1968, and then the State Committee for the Protection of Nature, possibly in tribute to all the years he’d spent in the forest. He remained until the end a deeply pious Communist rather than a careerist accumulating power and wealth for himself. Probably that’s why Timchuk never obtained a real position of power in Communist Belarus but instead went into such idealistic pursuits as planning for a better future and environmental concerns. That, too, speaks well of the man.
Vladimir Naumovich Tikhvinsky, one of Timchuk’s soldiers who’d gone through the war with him, wrote his former commander on one of those many war anniversary celebration days back in 1975: “If we managed to survive those days as partisans we’ll live forever.” They will, albeit in memory as among those who once saved the world.
Some months after Timchuk left for that great collective in the sky, Avram and Yochnet Dimenstein died in Dolhinov, the last Jews to live there until the Messiah comes and raises up all those interred on the cemetery hill and the victims of massacres buried together at its foot. In 1971, Dolhinov was downgraded from a town to a village, with only about 1400 people living there. By 2003, now part of the independent country of Dolhinov, there were fewer than 1200.
Among Timchuk’s papers were several letters from a woman named Galina Fedorovna Keymakh, the non-Jewish widow of one of his Soviet Jewish officers. David Keymakh had replaced the ailing Timchuk on the August 1943 plane flight that crashed, and thus died in his place, at age 35. For, Galina, Timchuk was one of the few connections she had with her martyred husband.
The same number of years later that her husband had on earth, on his birthday, November 7, 1978, Galina went to a town called Velikie Luki. She walked through a military exercise field into a small memorial park to the war dead: twenty-two columns, each holding small metal plates with the name of an honored hero who’d died for the Soviet motherland. There was dust everywhere, the sound of cars from the nearby street, the noise of live shouting soldiers from a later generation.
Pushing the gate open, she passed through, gravel crunching under her feet. Consulting the memorial book, she found her husband’s name. Then she made her way slowly, counting down the rows. If she was weary or overcome by emotions, the state had not provided benches for those mourning its heroes. Galina was obviously a very considerate woman. There was, she noted, no place to leave flowers since they would have blocked the names inscribed at the columns’ bottom section.
Her husband’s name was listed as being sealed onto the seventh column, sixth line from the top. Yes, this was the one. She stopped, the sound of her steps stirring up the stones of the earth ceased, and her eyes fell and transversed line by line. But it wasn’t there. Someone had unscrewed the plate with his name and taken it off. “I suppose,” she wrote Timchuk, “that is done by people who do not like non-Russian names.” Keymakh had fallen for the motherland but his memory was not wanted there. And then the motherland itself fell.
The Russians had oppressed the Jews; the Poles had either left them in welcome peace or persecuted them; the Germans had killed them. The Soviets harassed or forcibly assimilated them. The Jews had left.
Precisely because the status quo was so largely accepted, hatred had been almost always pushed over the margins, was not central to anyone’s existence. People were too busy living in their own world. Change comes from outside, not inside.
In the czar’s day, the Poles were overshadowed; in those of Polish power it was the Byelorussians’ turn to submit. Then the Soviets arrived and eliminated many of the Poles. Then the Nazis arrived and wiped out the Jews. Finally, the Soviets returned, almost all the remaining Poles fled and the Byelorussians were overwhelmed by a new Russian immigration taking the emptied houses and filling the vacant jobs.
All like some rendition of the Passover song, “Had Gadya,” itself a parable for ancient history’s progression of rulers and regimes:
“Then came the Holy One who
Smote the Angel of Death
Who slew the slaughterer,
Who killed the ox,
that drank the water,
that extinguished the fire,
that burned the stick,
that beat the dog,
that bit the cat,
that ate the goat,
which my father bought for two zuzim.”
Or, if one wishes to adjust it for the history recounted herein,
“Then the Holy One returned home the exiled children and
Who slew Hitler,
Who killed Poland,
that drank the Soviets,
that extinguished Byelorussian nationalism,
that burned the kaiser’s men,
That beat the czars,
That bit the Polish-Lithuanian empire,
That ate still other czars,
And all of them consumed the town,
which my forefathers bought with their blood, sweat, laughter, and tears for 600 years.
But which still lives within me, whether I knew it or not, and the same—adjust for your specific circumstances—is true for you.
As for Dolhinov, it had proved only a temporary abode for those who, one way or another, had gone home at last.