Children of Dolhinov: Our Ancestors and Ourselves » Chapter 6-The Shoah in Dolhinov
THE SHOAH IN DOLHINOV
I hate everything that merely informs me, without increasing or directly stimulating my activity.” –Goethe to Schiller, December 1789
On Sunday morning, June 22, 1941, as Dolhinov’s students nervously awaited for their final exam grades, Germany attacked a Soviet Union, totally unprepared for its ally’s betrayal. The German army reached Dolhinov in just six days. Within a year, the SS would report that the “Jewish problem” in Dolhinov had been solved forever.
During the war, six million Polish citizens perished, half of them Jews. The Germans succeeded in murdering 90 percent of those Polish Jews unable to flee to the USSR before they arrived. Almost as many Jews would die in Dolhinov alone, more than 3000, as American soldiers on the Normandy beaches on D-Day. Fewer than 300 survived.
Briefly, it happened like this. On March 28, 1942, came what the SS called the First Action, and on April 29-May 1, the Second Action. Around 2400 Jews were killed in those two operations. The remaining approximately 200 survivors still in town, kept alive temporarily because the Germans claimed to need their skills, were murdered on May 21. A smaller number were killed in small groups throughout the German occupation. About 300 had escaped, before, during, and after the two main massacres to be hidden by peasants or partisans, though a number of these escapees did not survive the fighting and see the war’s end.
In my own extended family, of 186 Rubins and Grosbeins alive in Dolhinov on June 22, 1941, no more than 15 would still be breathing on June 22, 1942.
Such statistics conceal the fact that the story of each who lived and everyone who died is an epic tale in itself. Moreover, the significance of these events—despite, or perhaps because of, decades of discussion about the Shoah—has been vastly misunderstood.
The conclusion most commonly drawn by contemporary society about the mass murder of European Jewry is that it shows the need for tolerance, diffusing into a sort of unfocussed niceness, hate-crime legislation, and Political Correctness. Ironically, by the early twenty-first century it often seemed the main beneficiaries of this view were those reviving the type of slanders against the Jewish people who perpetuated the massacre in the first place.
What clearer demonstration could there be then the April 2009 speech, coincidentally on the anniversary of Hitler’s birth, by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a UN-sponsored meeting supposedly fighting racism and anti-semitism. He had simultaneously denied the Shoah had happened while labelling Jews and Israel as the equivalent of Nazis. At the meeting’s end, most of the world’s nations passed an anti-Israel, and in many ways anti-Jewish, resolution. In short, the image of the Shoah had been turned against the victims while giving aid and comfort to contemporary spreaders of hatred, incitement, and violence against Jews, including as targets the survivors of the Dolhinov and other such massacres.
In contrast to the view of the Shoah that is so watered-down as to be rendered useless or, even worse, the reversal of lessons which justifies contemporary fascism and antisemitism is the concept of the German-born rabbi Emil Fackenheim. A Shoah survivor who later emigrated from Canada to Israel, Fackenheim pointed out that if that state had existed earlier, Europe’s Jews could have been saved.
Just before the 1967 Six-Day war—inspired by the threat to Israel’s existence at a moment that threatened to repeat the events he’d lived through—Fackenheim stated, “Thou shalt not hand Hitler posthumous victories.” And yet in our time the very memory of the mass murders he unleashed had become transformed into a tremendous posthumous victory for Hitler.
When I heard Ahmadinejad’s speech, I thought of an event that happened in Dolhinov. It was May 1, 1942. A little girl named Esther Dokszycky’s mother, Rivka, and sister, Roshke, had just been murdered by the Nazis. She had just seen a little boy shot down before her eyes and barely escaped death herself. Saved because her father was one of the few remaining skilled workers the Germans kept alive, she was taken by the collaborationist police to the house where the last Jews of Dolhinov were imprisoned.
One of the few remaining survivors was Ringa, Dokszycky’s first-grade teacher from the Zionist Tarbut school. The young woman, sitting next to her own four-year-old son, the last two living in her family, was astonished to see one of her students alive. She hugged and kissed Esther, and with tears in her eyes, said to her: “Remember how I taught you about Israel. But we didn’t have the opportunity to go there.” A few days later, she and her little boy were murdered, too.
Those who lived and died in Dolhinov knew the lessons of the Shoah.
First, the mass murder was a specifically Jewish phenomenon and not some universal event. Jews were targeted based on a long tradition of antisemitism whose continuity endured despite shifts in its specific themes. It arose from the slander of Judaism and of what Jews did and sought. This doctrine was manipulated by movements seeking power and aggressive dictatorships. And these factors are still true today.
Second, it was also profoundly anti-pragmatic, based on passion and ideology beyond rational calculations. One of the main reasons Jews in Dolhinov expected not to be murdered was that killing them would damage the German war effort. Yet such “irrational” aspects of antisemitism continue to endure today, in which injuring the Jews overwhelms the more immediate material self-interest of those consumed by such hatred.
Even today, does the West understand Communism or fascism, pan-Arab nationalism or radical Islamism? For Western society, certainly in our time, has the greatest difficulty in understanding how anyone might believe anything that would cause them to act in any way that wasn’t the most efficient, immediately rewarding for their material interests.
The West has prospered by following the road of pragmatism. Yet it has lost the capacity—indeed, the dominant worldview outlaws it—to understand that not everyone thinks alike. Addressing this non-ideological materialism contemptuously, shortly after the Iranian revolution took power in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini snorted at those who thought the upheaval took place to lower the price of watermelons, that is, to improve living standards.
The German fascists called their doctrine Weltanschauungskrieg, the war of ideologies. The Communists called it class struggle. The Islamists call it Jihad.
Third, as Fackenheim and Ringa, I’m sorry that I don’t know her family name, understood, the Shoah showed the need for a Jewish state, a place where Jewish civilization could continue and which could offer protection to Jews in the face of inevitable incitement and efforts at persecution. While it could certainly be argued that the existence of Israel itself inspires antisemitism, the problem is that this is demonstrably untrue. At any rate, for Jews to cease to exist as a people is a preferable alternative to being hated for living as one. Let those who chose otherwise follow their individual paths.
Finally, there is the all-important lesson from the Shoah that Jews must be willing and able to defend themselves from would-be repressors or murders. Moreover, others cannot be depended upon to provide such protection.
Today, it often seems as if the central lesson taken from the Shoah is the well-meaning but dangerous utopian notion of making “bad people” extinct through education, of breeding aggressiveness and intolerance out of society. The reality, however, is that “bad people,” guided by greed and delusionary ideologies, will continue to exist, sometimes even the very product of such efforts. They must be defeated by force of arms if necessary, imperfect and impure as that means must inevitably be. And if no one else can or will defend you, you must defend yourself.
As Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir once put it, “A bad press is better than a good epitaph.” The world might be more kindly disposed toward dead Jews, but it is preferable to be alive and face criticism by those who either don’t understand or don’t care about the reality of your situation.
It is the morning of June 22, 1941. The Red Army retreats in disorder. German planes bomb the roads and villages where there are no military targets. Panzer tanks roar up the roads, forcing fleeing Soviet soldiers into fields and through the forests. Twenty-two-year-old Private Boris Kozinitz, a Jew from the town of Dokshitz, neighboring Dolhinov where he has many relatives, drafted into the Soviet army despite being a Polish citizen, moves through the forest with three comrades. Panting with exhaustion, perspiring with fear, they hide in the sheltering forests but are starving. Desperate, Kozinitz approaches a Polish farmer who generously fills his bags with food. The Germans, the man tells him, are trying to win over the villagers by giving them back all the property nationalized by the Soviets.
But food brings the men little comfort. They are surrounded. His non-Jewish comrades want to surrender to the Germans but Kozinitz, knowing what would happen to him, refuses and decides to make his way home, 200 miles through German-occupied territory. Generous farmers give him food and old clothes.
Now, stomach full and dressed like a civilian, Kozinitz can pose as one of the many Soviet political prisoners freed by the Germans who crowd the roads heading home. He passes through seemingly deserted ghost towns where fearful Jews have locked themselves into their homes, which offer some illusion of safety.
The Germans warn against housing or helping Red Army soldiers or Jews. Refused help by peasants who’ve heard this decree, he finds a pigsty to sleep in. His appearance and accent mark him as a Jew, his shaved head as a soldier. Seeking his brother, Jacob, in Vileika, Kozinitz is pleased to learn that he and his wife escaped to Russia.
He stays the night in the attic of a woman who worked as cleaning lady for the NKVD. In the middle of the night, anti-Communist Poles break in to see if any comrades are hiding there. Kozinitz, who’s no Communist but might be dead before convincing them of that, burrows beneath the hay. They don’t find him. The next morning, as he leaves, the woman tells him that a Jew was shot to death for not giving his bicycle to the looters.
Finally, Kozinitz finds a farmer leading some cows to market in Dolhinov who lets him pose as a farm hand. Everything there is in chaos, as Polish and Byelorussian townspeople loot Soviet supply depots, including the ample stocks of vodka. Drunken men stagger through the streets. He spends the night with relatives and the next day finally, after his six-day odyssey, makes it home to Dokshitz where no one recognizes him given his haggard appearance and ragged farmer’s clothes.
“Little did we imagine,” he later wrote, “that in a short while most of the town Jews would not be among the living.” Decades later, after surviving the war, he would live not far from me in Tel Aviv.
Although it had only been been 18 months since Poland had been invaded by Germany and fought desperately against the Nazis, many Poles in the Dolhinov area exulted at the new German attack. Mikołaj Klementowicz from Polany village watched as Soviet soldiers ran east in panic, looking miserable “in their funny pointed hats and dusty uniforms.” They kept getting lost, threw away their weapons, and split into ever smaller groups. None of them did any fighting.
In Dolhinov itself, Józef Leszkiewicz and a group of men went to the Communist headquarters, the People’s House, to tear down the red star and hammer-and-sickle emblems from the roof. Armed with crowbars, they marched to the market square to break down the doors of the cooperative enterprises. Suddenly a woman shouted, “The Soviets are coming!” A Red Army armored car roared up to the main square. It fired some shots at the looters and killed one of them. Leszkiewicz ran and hid in the nearby church.
Order momentarily restored, a Soviet soldier made an excited speech to whoever would listen: “The day of great vengeance will come!” The Red Army would return to Dolhinov. But the soldiers didn’t want to hang around any longer. Someone yelled that a German patrol was driving up Vileika street. The Soviets jumped back in their armored car, raced off north, and were not seen again in the town for three years.
Leszkowicz would later tell an interviewer that the, “Poor and some criminals kept demolishing Jewish stores, Soviet cooperatives and stealing goods,” though he had apparently been that group’s leader. Was he motivated by a desire to remove the hated Soviet symbols or to strike at the Jews? Such was the irony of Poland’s fate, however, that Jozef was welcoming the German assault partly as revenge for the Soviets having deported his brother, Antoni. Yet three years later, that same brother would die as a soldier fighting the Germans as an ally, however reluctant, of the Soviet Union.
Bushke Katzovitz of Dolhinov was a college student in Grodno when German planes and artillery bombarded the city. On June 23, the Germans march in and the dormitory where she was living became their headquarters. Never for a moment did she think of fleeing the country. “I knew that I must be with my family,” she explained. But how could she get back to Dolhinov without a pass issued by the Germans, whose police checked the passengers on every train?
She asked one of her professors, now forced to work for the Germans, to help and he got her the needed permit. Now she was sitting on a train heading north through the flat Polish countryside, a young woman wearing a big yellow star with the word “Jude” on it, as required by the occupation authorities.
A Polish Christian woman sat down next to her. They conversed in Polish, which Bushke spoke well, “Why are you wearing that star since it puts your life in danger for every moment. Take it off! You don’t look Jewish and can pass as a Pole.” Bushke listened to her, ensuring that she made it back to Dolhinov unscathed. When she arrived home, she thought, “I was very happy to be with my family, for better and for worst as long as we are together.”
As long as we are together, she said, and that was the most important thing. Almost exactly 70 years later, I was in a passenger van, heading east through the Lithuanian countryside not far away from where Bushke had that conversation. My host, a young, tall and handsome Lithuanian man, looking like a Star Trek conception of some superior alien race, asked me a question that was the modern parallel of the one asked Bushke: Why didn’t the Jews flee? Why didn’t they fight?
I took no offense, understanding that he was genuinely puzzled. No one resisted the Soviets more than the Lithuanians, though many back then—often the same people—had found the Nazis more congenial. And here I want to give him a full and proper answer to his queries.
The first issue, why they didn’t run away, is the easiest to answer. Of course, the Nazi attack of June 1941 was unexpected. Even after the invasion was launched, Jews living under Soviet rule in places like Dolhinov were assured until it was almost too late that there was no danger. No one could defeat the Red Army.
Shalom Yoran, in a town not far from Dolhinov, described what he saw on June 22. While he was at work, someone rushed in and said that the Germans had attacked. Yoran stepped outside right into the middle of a crowd buzzing with rumors. Only at 4 AM the next morning did Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov make a radio speech announcing the attack, giving no details, and predicting inevitable victory for the USSR. It was broadcast repeatedly. And that’s all the news there was.
By that time, German planes had strafed the town. Desperately spinning the radio dial to try to find some information, Yoran heard only music. The local Communist party office told everyone that there was good news: the Soviet army had pushed back the Germans and was advancing triumphantly toward Warsaw. “Our spirits rose,” he recalled and he envisioned a quick victory.
But the next day, as claims of victory were continually repeated, his doubts grew. The roads were jammed with trucks and horse-pulled carts packed with Soviet soldiers and officials fleeing back home. Townspeople stood at the curbside, shouting: “Where are you going? The front line’s the other way!”
No, the passengers yelled back, there is no more frontline. The Germans are getting closer and our army’s crumbled away. No defender stands between you and the Nazis. Nobody wanted to believe it. Perhaps, said one man, these are just German saboteurs trying to demoralize us. But as more and more Red Army men and bureaucrats fled down the road, leaving only dust behind, the truth could no longer be denied. Relief turned into panic.
During the short time between realizing the Germans were on the way and the moment they arrived, escape was still difficult. The Soviets only evacuated their own personnel, who were packing their bags while reassuring the public that there was nothing to worry about. Local Soviet officials even threatened some Jews that fleeing would be interpreted as showing insufficnet faith in the USSR’s power and could result in severe punishment.
Nevertheless, hundreds of Dolhinov Jews tried to get across into Russia, but were turned back by border guards as the Soviets sealed off the old pre-1939 frontier, fearing refugees would be spies or German agents. Only men without families and in good condition could sneak across and keep on running. The rest turned around and sadly walked home. They had nowhere else to go.
In the Katzovitz family there was a debate over what to do. At first, they didn’t believe the “legendary Red Army would collapse in such a short time.” Another reason was that they knew their daughter, Buske, would leave her college in Grodno and come looking for them. By the time they got to the border, it was already closed.
Batya Sosensky’s brother Yosef’s friends—including her future husband, Reuven Kramer–jumped on their bikes when they first heard about the German advance and crossed the old border before it was closed. Yosef asked his father if the whole family could go but he replied that with five children it was impossible to run away. So Yosef stayed with his family in Dolhinov.
Yakov Segalchick managed at the last minute to get on the last car of the last Soviet train leaving. But German planes strafed the train and the car he was on derailed.. He then walked to the border and saw:
“Thousands of refugees…. Some came by horse and buggy, some by foot. They were running back and forth, looking for a place to cross to the other side and save themselves from the disaster to come. However, Soviet guards stood with weapons ready at every crossing point. They demanded that everyone go back, saying that we were all causing unnecessary panic, and that we must return to our proper places.”
Hundreds of Jews from further west did flee the Germans but when they arrived in Dolhinov they reached the end of the road. With the Soviet border closed they could go no further. The Dolhinov Jews took relatives or strangers from other towns into their own homes and shared with them the little they had.
Once the Germans themselves had arrived, the question for the Dolhinov Jews became why they should assume an attempt to flee would be more likely to preserve their lives and how they would go about escaping. Although it might be hard to understand this in hindsight, the Jews of Dolhinov and other towns in eastern Poland knew very little about Hitler and Germany while holding warm feelings toward the Germans themselves.
It should be remembered that those dwelling in such small towns had little opportunity to get foreign news and no contact with people from abroad. Especially after 1939, they were cut off from the world by what later would be called the Iron Curtain. Indeed, the Soviet media during the 18 months of their rule over Dolhinov spoke quite positively about Germany and censored out any news of atrocities. One could argue that they should have known better but they didn’t.
Even more important, however, was the failure to differentiate between Germany as they knew it and Germany under the Nazi regime. They might not have known much about the cultured Germany of Heine and Beethoven but they certainly believed in Germany as a model of civilized behavior. Older Dolhinov Jews had viewed Germany as a preferable alternative to Czarist Russia, a place where Jews had far more rights and prosperity.
This attitude was reinforced during World War One, when the Germans occupied Dolhinov. One of my relatives had been a Russian soldier in World War I. Shot in the hand, he had been captured by the Germans who had given him good medical assistance and treated him better than the czar’s government. When the Germans arrived in 1941, he actually went out with bread and drinks for the soldiers. Another relative of mine had been briefly arrested by the German occupation authorities in 1917 but his wife had easily talked the kaiser’s men into releasing him.
“Most Jews didn’t expect the Germans to be so difficult,” recalled Ida Friedman, “We were told that in World War I they were very friendly toward the Jews in Dolhinov. We didn’t think it was possible they would be so bad.”
Another powerful factor was an inability to leave homes and break up families. Many of Dolhinov’s young men were working in Vileika at the time, where jobs were available, but though they could easily have boarded numerous trains heading for the Soviet Union in time to escape, all of them decided to return to Dolhinov for two reasons: to be with their families and, as one of them wrote, “We believed…there was no way that the powerful Red Army could be defeated.” Another who considered, but rejected, running away asked, “How do you abandon a house you have lived in all your life?” Almost none of the Dolhinov Jews had ever been far away or to another country. Instead, countries—in the form of changing borders—had always come to them.
The hardest thing of all, though, was the break-up of families necessitated by going into the rough conditions of the forest. Men would have to leave wives and children; young people their parents and siblings to a certain death.
Boris Kuzinitz bought a World War One rifle and 14 bullets from a peasant and hid them in the cellar of the family house. Finding the cache, his father forced Boris to admit his plan to leave. Having been badly beaten by Germans, his father couldn’t make the journey. “If we are together at least I’ll know when we’re killed,” he said. Boris recalled that before he left, “He cried continuously, begged and did not leave me alone that whole night.” Boris promised to return for him but his father was later murdered by the Germans, despite Boris’s efforts to save him.
In the Friedman family of Dolhinov, the two youngest daughters missed their two older brothers who were in safe hiding places with peasants and cried so much that their father brought them back home, where they would all die together.
The Dokszycky family had a unique opportunity for escape that they rejected for this reason. An uncle with Soviet citizenship came through town while fleeing from Vilna, where he’d been working, just after the German invasion. He urged the family to come with him immediately. They refused. He begged to take his favorite niece with him.
Her parents refused. “Whatever will happen, will happen,” they said. How bad could the Germans be? After all, the Russians hadn’t been so good either?
“You’ll find out!” he warned as he went out the door toward the border.
And who could say at the time which direction led to life? Batya and Haya Sosensky’s cousin, Bluma, was married to a skilled shoemaker who the Germans designated as a valued specialist. After the first massacre, this status seemed a ticket to survival. The Sosensky family decided to give their youngest daughter, six-year-old Sima, to these relatives so that at least one member of the family would survive.
But Sima cried and refused to go with them. It turned out that the other family–both parents and four of six children–all perished while Sima, her mother and sisters survived. In other cases, the exact opposite happened.
Families refused to give up children or children refused to flee with relatives or hide in the countryside only for all to leave this world together. Dov Katzovitch, who became a partisan, put it best: “The best characteristics of the Jewish nation turned against it. Jews are very attached to their families and so many fathers and sons, having the chance to escape did not. In many cases partisans came back to the ghetto to die together with their loved ones.”
There is one other factor of which people at the time were very conscious. The flight of any individual to join the partisans might lead to the instant execution of his entire family. In Glebokie, for example, when two brothers joined the partisans, the Germans told their father to make sure they came back or the entire family would be murdered. He wrote his sons and they did return.
Obviously, anyone who has never faced such stark decisions cannot judge those who have.
It is also true that, at least during the early months, the Dolhinov and other Jews of Poland simply could not conceive of what the Germans were planning to do. That such a thing could happen was not only too much at odds with their personal beliefs—and faith that God would not allow it—but also with their personal and Jewish historical experience. Discrimination, repression, and even pogroms were things they knew about but in some ways that legacy of pain misled them into thinking such assaults would always be temporary and partial.
In the past, remembered by tradition as well as personal observations, it was always possible to bribe, outwit, and outwait. A sense of humor had also been a vital asset. As one Dolhinov wit put it at the darkest moment of 1942-1943, when the winter was especially cold and the rains unusually intense: “You know why the Lord made it so rainy this year? It is because Jews are outdoors in the forests.” But it was also true that at times the old methods worked. Every Jewish resident of one Ukrainian shtetl occupied by Romanian troops, allied with the Nazis, survived by paying off the soldiers. The Germans were made of sterner stuff.
This basic approach was taken by the Judenrats, the Jewish councils either elected by constituents or appointed by the Germans. Like many Jews, these leaders thought the vast majority of the community could survive by proving their labor’s value for the Germans, outwitting their tormentors, and the war’s quick end.
I have never heard a survivor attack the Judenrats, though in some towns there was specific criticism of their Jewish police for being too harsh at times. In Dolhinov, survivors had no complaint about either institution. On the contrary, people recognized they were doing the best they could to stall for time and propitiate the Germans. In the words of Boris Kuzinitz, speaking of his nearby town, “The Judenrat people did all in their power to help and make things easier.” Shraga Soliminski said of the council in his town of Lida, “They always did as much as they could to help everybody, and they informed the ghetto in advance of any impending disaster.” Their strategy turned out to be profoundly wrong but they recognized that long before the end and almost all the members in each town paid for their mistake with their lives.
Speaking of Dolhinov, Avraham Friedman explained that the members of the Judenrat “tried to make the life of the Jews a little easier. If someone was arrested, they tried to obtain his release by giving gold and expensive presents to the Germans, and usually they succeeded. They did their work with dedication and self-sacrifice, but the problem was that they believed too much in the power of gold. They thought that they would always be able to buy the hearts of the enemy. I couldn’t believe that even for one minute.”
It was no accident that the two men who would emerge as the most determined fighters in Dolhinov—Friedman and Yigal Sigalchik–unlike most people in the town, had been eyewitnesses to Nazi atrocities elsewhere during the first days of the war and thus understood what was happening.
Yet sometimes gold did have power, at least temporarily, to save lives. The Germans forced the Judenrat to send 20 young men from Dolhinov to Vileika to cut firewood for the army intelligence and SS offices. They were often badly beaten. The men met in March 1942 and sent a messenger to Dolhinov telling of their suffering and begging for help.Within a day, the Judenrat paid a bribe to the Germans and the men were allowed to return home.
Thus, while all the Dolhinov Jews, and those other other towns, wanted to live the question which had no easy answer at the time was: What strategy had the best chance of succeeding? The Hassidic rebbe of Zelechow told his followers, reversing the long-revered practice of “kiddush ha-shem”–accepting murdered, passive martyrdom to glorify God through showing one’s firm belief–“Every Jew who survives sanctifies God.” Staying alive was the highest form of resistance.
But what to do once it was clear that the Germans were not going to go away soon and were striving to make the Jews go away from this world of flesh-and-blood?
Three main impediments came into play to fool Jews into thinking that they could survive—in fact, only could survive—by staying in place and playing along with their captors.
The first was the idea that running away effectively was either impossible for long or was even more likely to result in death. As Dov Katzovitch put it, “To escape the ghetto meant only the beginning of the fight for survival.” Without help from non-Jews, no one could live long outside the ghetto. Your first mistake in trusting the wrong person—even being seen by the wrong person–would be your last. Even if you found a peasant willing to give you food or shelter—at the risk of his whole family being killed—for a day, you would have to find someone to do so the next day and the day after that.
Hundreds of Jews who fled to the forests were in fact murdered; others merely robbed or died from starvation, or cold. There were bandits in the woods, Soviet soldiers who deserted or escaped prison camps, driven to such acts by rapacity or antisemitism, who would rob, rape, or murder a Jew as fast as any German. When a group from the Vilna area escaped and reached the forest near Dolhinov in 1941, Russian deserters attacked them, took away their handguns, and killed them. Most often, refugees were merely told to go away and fend for themselves.
If turned in by a local person or captured by German soldiers or police those fleeing died quickly. In the ghettoes, Jews saw friends and neighbors return home, exhausted, to tell of their privations. And the Germans let them do so freely in order to demoralize the others.
When I think about this question, Gutte Markman from Dokshitz comes into my mind. Given her last name, she was probably a distant relative of mine by marriage. She was among the hundreds of people shot and left for dead during the big March 1942 massacre in her town, by the same men who two days later did the same thing in Dolhinov. They had somehow missed her. Slowly, painfully she crawled out from a large pile of dead bodies.
Full of fear and anguish every second, traumatized by seeing her entire family wiped out, she ran stumbling to a nearby village and found a farmer to hide her—I dare not think at what price, though perhaps that is unfair. Four days later he threw her out. In search of some help, she was caught by peasants who turned her over to the police. Within a few moments they rectified their previous bad aim.
Knowing the risks of flight, a majority chose to take their chances with the Germans. In the earlier days, at least, though, they didn’t know fully the risks of not fleeing. This was also partly due to the Soviet authorities’ keeping the truth from them. Under Soviet rule, no news about Nazi atrocities was permitted, since Germany was Moscow’s ally. Even after the German attack, Soviet officials spoke not a single word about the massacres of Jews or the need for special measures to save them. In 1942, the United States and Great Britain knew very little about the Holocaust; the Soviets—much closer to the scene—knew everything. Their soldiers had contact with thousands of witnesses of mass murder from hundreds of places. Yet little was done and nothing was publicized.
A second and powerful factor was the Jews’ belief that their work’s value to the German war effort would shield them. As one survivor put it, “A lot of young people thought that they had found a job that would keep them alive,” because it was so useful to the Germans. The Germans themselves were well aware of this assumption, as well as the local Jews’ ignorance about the nature of the Nazi regime. A German official reported in July 1941, for example that these Jews knew nothing of German antisemitic laws and expected they would be left alone if they worked. That hope was stoked by the Germans in the sign over the entrance of the Auschwitz death camp—“Work brings freedom,” and this was precisely the illusion proferred and accepted in Dolhinov.
If some of the German officers had their way that indeed might have happened. Commanded to live off the land, Army commanders needed civilians to grow food, repair roads, and perform a host of services. To squeeze the maximum output, they would mistreat and starve workers but had no interest in killing them.
And every day, as the Jews were driven to work, starved, beaten, the most needed technicians among them given special permits and minor privileges, they held the conviction that this life—terrible as it was—would go on until the Germans were finally defeated and driven from their lands. Why should the Germans destroy such a useful labor force, sacrifice millions of unpaid workers, an asset that might be the difference between victory and defeat in the war?
The answer was that the Nazi leadership believed in their ideology. They believed that Jews were vermin, that they were responsible for all the world’s ills, that they were forever enemies. And they were willing to pay a high price for their destruction. All these features would be revived bu radical Islamists a half-century later.
There was one significant, albeit temporary, and very unlikely dissenter. His name was Generalkommissar Wilhelm Kube, a founding member of the Nazi Party and governor in Minsk for all of conquered Belarus. He had risen fast in the party but fell when caught trying to blackmail another Nazi official’s wife. Dismissed from his post and even sent briefly to a concentration camp, Kube was brought back into authority in 1941 by no less a figure than the director of the Final Solution, Heinrich Himmler himself.
During the months following the German conquest, in the summer of 1941, Kube argued that Jewish labor was needed for the German war effort and that the Byelorussian people were being alienated rather than won over by the war against the Jews. His colleagues were scandalized, whispering Kube was a Jew-lover. Kube protested that he was unsurpassed by anyone in his hatred of the Jews and promised to move forward with the massacres. He faithfully implemented Hitler’s policy until he was himself assassinated in a partisan operation, organized by Jewish members of the underground, on September 22, 1943.
The third, heartbreaking, thing that doomed the Jews was the timeline. The main killings in Dolhinov took place between March and May 1942, ending just as partisan forces were going into military action and establishing liberated areas. If the Germans had been slower, the Jews of eastern Poland at least would have had a real chance for a safe haven or rescue. And it was one the last survivors seized whenever possible.
Yet even after all this there was one more thing that the Jews of Dolhinov and other such towns clung to in their desperation and helplessness: a disbelief that such mass murders could happen or were happening elsewhere.
Here’s how Shmuel Kugel put his experience. In a village called Zembin, the Jews were forced to dig a large pit by the Germans. Then the adults were shot; children were thrown into the pit alive and buried, with the earth still moving from those struggling in vain to escape. Only ten Jews survived, one of whom arrived in Kugel’s home town of Pleshchenitsy just one mile away. Kugel recounted:
“Such an act of evil seemed inconceivable. One wanted to think that it was…the act of a few crazed German soldiers in reprisal for some Germans found murdered there.” But they heard of more and more such massacres: in Logoisk and Borisov, Smolevichi, Gorodok, and other small towns. “And so we realized that what happened in Zembin was not a chance occurrence, [but] that it was carried out on Hitler’s criminal orders.”
By that time, though, they were imprisoned in the ghetto. It was too late. In fact, many Jews who did flee Pleshchenitsy went to a place they thought was safer: Dolhinov.
Such accounts of incredulity appear over and over again, reflecting natural human propensity to reject the unthinkable. “We knew,” said Ida Friedman of Dolhinov, “but people didn’t believe” even the stories of those who fled German rule for the Soviet-controlled sector in 1939.
Shalom Yoran put it this way:
“It was totally beyond our comprehension that a civilized nation in the twentieth century would be capable of taking an entire community—the workers who served them, the children, women, young and old people—and systematically murdering them for no other reason than that they were born Jewish….These crimes could not be concealed or tolerated. Didn’t the murderers sense that they would eventually be punished?”
He perceptively understood why people had to think this way:
“We couldn’t allow ourselves to believe what we had heard. To believe it would be to know that we were utterly helpless. It was winter, and we had no escape. My mother still had hope that somehow we would be saved, and because of her optimism people rallied around her. At the time we were totally unaware that we were part of a major scheme. We attributed the behavior toward us to the winds of war. We thought that as the German victories decreased and their military efforts failed, they were letting out their frustrations on the Jews.
Noakh Melnik remembered that when he escaped death in his home town he went to a larger one, reasoning that there were 10,000 Jews living there, “They can’t kill that many people in public.”
Bushke Katzovitz of Dolhinov recalled:
“We knew that things were going to be bad, but in our worst nightmares we did not anticipate how bad things were to become. We expected that a set of rules would be implemented and we will greatly suffer financially. But we could not imagine murders and organized annihilation of women, children and old. As we gradually realized that every day there is a new retribution and additional restriction imposed upon us, the indication that our end is near became harder to ignore. We knew that we must run and take cover. It would be the only means that we could save ourselves from undisputable death sentence. However we had to acknowledge the bitter recognition that there was no route of escape for us.”
All of these factors made it harder for the Dolhinov Jews and those in other towns to flee or fight. In addition, of course, they had no experience in anything to do with military activities and owned no guns or ammunition. In each case, the actual period of mass killings lasted a very short period, also making it harder to react. There were uprisings in many towns, but mainly between July and September 1942, after Dolhinov had already been wiped out. They had no chance of inflicting serious casualties on the Germans, far less winning any battles. Still, it is clear that the later Jews survived, the more likely they were to have the organization and weapons to fight back.
And one final point in this regard, for the Jews still alive from Dolhinov by the time of the final mass killing, in May 1942, the only way they survived the next three years is because they did indeed fight.
It is hard to believe that all these events took place in less than a year.
Avraham Friedman was born in 1918 into a poor family and though he graduated from the Tarbut school in 1935, both of his parents were dead by the time he was 19 and he was sole support for four younger siblings. So he went to work as a blacksmith with his grandfather. When the Soviets came, they took away the shop so the two men went to work for the fox farm headed by Timchuk, from late 1939 to mid-1940. “I matured a lot that year,” Friedman later wrote. Seeing the new opportunities opened up by the Soviets’ system, “I realized that my future didn’t belong in the blacksmith’s profession.” He entered an auto mechanics’ course in another town—making the switch from horse shoes to auto motors overnight–which he attended from the end of 1940 until the day of the German invasion.
Friedman first decided to walk to Minsk, assuming this would be a safe place since everyone thought, “The Red Army would organize and beat the Germans swiftly. Not in our worst nightmares,” did he and his friends imagine what would come. But the German army blocked their way. On June 26, 1941, Friedman found himself in Rakov, where the Germans assembled everyone in the central square and divided them into two groups: Christians, on one side; Jews on the other. They were held all day and all Jews who could be identified as Soviet soldiers—including two friends of Friedman who’d been drafted—were murdered. The rest were let go.
On and on Friedman walked with a couple of friends, through town after town, heading toward Dolhinov to be with his family. On July 2, they encountered three Christians who knew him from having worked on the fox farm, carrying sacks on their way to loot Jewish homes. They recognized him and stopped a passing German army car, yelling, “They are Communists! Jewish Communists!”
Friedman and his companions ran; the soldiers fired, wounding Friedman, and chased them down. Three Germans stood around them with weapons ready to shoot, and Friedman thought his life was at an end. Suddenly, a German officer came by who dismissed the Christian accusers and told the soldiers to let the Jews go. German officer had daily opportunities to save lives if he so wished.
And so Friedman lived to return to Dolhinov, be patched up by Dr. Kohler, and hide in his grandfather’s house. A friend, an electrician who’d been assigned by the Germans to handle the radios confiscated from townpeople, got one for Friedman who was then uniquely able to discover what was happening in the outside world. The Germans told the local people that they’d captured Moscow, and without the BBC’s Polish, German, and English service, Friedman and others wouldn’t have known otherwise.
While Friedman was still trekking down the seemingly endless road home, on June 18, 1941, the German army had marched into—and through–Dolginov. The parade was led by three tanks. Hundreds of thrilled Poles and Byelorussians from the town and neighboring villages came to the Central Marketplace, the town square lined with Jewish shops, to celebrate liberation from the Communists. Women greeted the Germans with flower bouquets Jews closed their stores, went home, and shuttered their windows, but Haya Katzovitz, whose family lived on the square, watched silently the jubilation of her neighbors:
“Two German tanks went through and the non-Jews in the market stood and watched, shocked…Then they came with their motorbikes and big black boots and I was alone with my mother at home. So she asked me, “Why are you so pale? Are you scared? Let’s go to sit with some other Jews so that we won’t be alone.” So they walked next door to be with their neighbors, “There everything was nice and clean. In their house everything was quiet. It seemed as if there were no Germans.”
For the German army at that moment, Haya and her neighbors were of little interest. Dolhinov was just a wide spot in the road to Moscow and Leningrad. But it had a clear strategic value. From Minsk, headquarters of Army Group Central, the main road ran through Dolhinov. The railroad went just a few miles north of it to Leningrad. Thus, while Dolhinov was not exactly Times Square, it was a place the Germans needed, as so many armies had before.
The German supply lines through Dolhinov or the nearby railroad, stretched 1000 miles long to support a battlefront 1500 miles wide. For two weeks, every day at every hour, an unending stream of German soldiers passed through Dolhinov to the front. In trucks, tanks, halftracks, motocycles, bicycles, and on foot they marched, most hardly giving a glance to what they saw as a little town of no interest whatsoever. Like the soldiers of Ivan the Terrible, Stephen Batory, Charles XII, Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Czar Nicholas II, Lenin and Pilsudski and Stalin, all were content to leave the town pretty much as it had been. But this time was different.
One day, a German soldier on a bicycle hit a bump in the road. The bike wobbled, he lost his balance, and crashed right next to the home of Nachman Friedman whose wife, seeing an injured man, another human being, went to help him. She took him into her home, tied up his ankle with a rag, and offered him water. The young soldier accepted her hospitality and rested on a chair in their parlor. After some minutes he stood, looked her up and down, and instead of thanking her, merely said, “Do you think this is going to help you? You Jews are going to `get it.’ You’ll see what we’ll do to you,” and stomped out. Almost 70 years later, her niece Ida Friedman who was there at that moment, told me, “I guess we saw that he was right.”
Combat soldiers en route to the front and their own fates there yelled down from trucks to Jews working on the highway, telling them they should run away as fast as possible because Hitler was planning to kill them all, showing that average Germans were not quite so ignorant of what was going to happen. A few bought tobacco from Jews and drank coffee with them, “I have nothing against you,” one said, “but things are going to go badly for you.” Others, riding by in trucks to the front, “Juden, Du habst dem Krieg Gewollt” (“Jews, you wanted the war”!) – well, there you have it.” Others laughed: “Das ist das derweilte volk” (“These are the chosen people”)
For while it is true that some regular officers angrily complained that the mass murders dishonored the army and in some cases even kicked the SS out of their areas at least temporarily the great majority supported actively or passively the Shoah. Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau on October 10, 1941 announced, “The soldier in the Eastern Territories is not merely a fighter according to the rules of the art of war, but also the bearer of a ruthless national ideology….Therefore the soldier must have understanding of the necessity of a severe but just revenge on sub-humans.”
In contrast to the situation of the Jews, the dominant feeling among Poles, as several eyewitnesss described it, was relief. “People cried of with joy. In our village the villagers prayed and thanked God for salvation. Then they cursed the Russians and wished them a defeat in the war.” The German troops seemed invincible and were warmly welcomed as saviors from arrests, deportations, and collectivization. The Poles and Byelorussians had no idea that they’d gone if not from the frying pan into the fire, at least into another frying pan.
Józef Leszkowicz describes the welcome for the German troops as enthusiastic.
“A magnificent welcome gate was made with an inscription `Heil Hitler!’ though it was written with a [spelling] mistake, it expressed the gratitude of the people for saving them from hated Soviet occupation. An orchestra waited next to the gate. First a motorcycle rider appeared on the road then an armored vehicle. It looked really threatening. Then suddenly the orchestra started to play a welcome march. Somebody approached the Germans with bread and salt. They didn’t understand the meaning of it so somebody explained to him that this was a Polish traditional way of welcoming guests. The atmosphere became more relaxed” and the German soldiers were pleased with the ceremony.
Only a dozen or so German soldiers were stationed in Dolhinov during that first year: one officer to run the militia they’d recruit from among local people; a few to run the bigger farms to produce food for the army, a squad of the Geheime Feld Polizei to supervise control of the Jews, and a four-man communications’ team to report back to headquarters on road conditions and the garrison’s needs. Police applicants, it was said in the posted advertisement, should have military experience and know how to fire a gun. The commander was an ethnic Pole from Kovno in Lithuania who, as one Jewish survivor put it, “was worse than the Germans.”
The Germans’ big radio set was installed in the Dubanevich family’s home because it was the first place on the south end of town. When the communications’ unit came into the house for the first time, the officer in charge asked Maria, the oldest daughter who sold tickets in the bus station, “Where’s your father?”
“He was arrested by the Soviets, sent to Siberia, and never came back,” she answered.
“Well, we’re going to stay here,” replied the officer.
“But there are six of us in the family. What are we going to do without our home?”
“We don’t ask permission,” came the reply from an officer not used to being spoken to that way. Yet these were Poles, not Jews, and their orders were to get along with these local people.
Evidently, though, the men felt sorry for the probably widowed mother, a victim of the Bolsheviks after all, and her five children. “You can stay here during the day,” they said, “but you’ll have to leave at night.” Having six Polish civilians around while the soldiers were asleep on the floor was a security risk. And so the Dubanevich’s went to neighbors every night and did their family activities around the little German military base in their parlor in the daylight hours.
Eventually, the Germans became friendlier and even brought them food from the military canteen. I hear the story sitting in the same room, two-thirds’ of a century later. The furniture probably hasn’t changed that much, threadbare rug, collection of crosses, big jars of pickled cabbage on the table, old radio playing—ironically—“Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end….” Standing on the very spot where these events had happened, perhaps molecules from the officer’s uniforn settling on my clothes.
The Germans immediately reorganized the local government, police, and created a militia. The police were volunteers from local Polish and the Byelorussian residents; others were ordered to join the militia, which was equipped with old rifles. During the initial phase, the main priority was to win over the Poles, playing on their anti-Soviet sympathies.
Every Polish and Byelorussian resident of the German-occupied territories (along with Ukrainians further south) had to decide how to deal with the new regime.
Those who passionately loved Poland could hardly be expected to welcome the German invaders, even among those who shared with them a hatred of Jews. Ironically, though, the Soviet repression had made the German occupation far stronger. The Polish communal leadership and patriots who would have resisted the Germans, like the Bilewiczs, had already been deported by the Soviets. As a result, a Polish national underground was never organized in Dolhinov during the German occupation.
As for the Byelorussians, some 20,000 volunteered for security police duty or the German army, where they formed the 29th and 30th Waffen Grenadier Divisions. Bylorussian nationalists participated in a puppet government headquarted in Minsk. Other Bylorussians were drafted into poorly armed local militia groups. A lot of their duties involved fighting the partisans, though the 30th Grenadier Division was moved to the Western Front where it was put into the line against U.S. forces in late 1944.
In the Dolhinov area, however, where Byelorussian was virtually synonymous with an educated and passive peasantry, there was no such political movement. Instead, the thuggish and opportunist who required no rationale took the lead. As a result, collaboration in this area, in contrast to the Ukraine or Lithuania, had no programmatic content. The motivating force was hatred of others—Jews, Russians, and, among Byelorussians, Poles as well—along with a love of money and material goods. But these are all attitudes more likely to be found in average human beings than the self-sacrificing courage of patriotic Poles which had met the Soviet conquest.
Many of those who joined the police were bullies and semi-criminal elements, attracted by the steady pay and the chance to loot Jewish property and beat up Jews. In Myadel, most of the local collaborators were Poles who declared, “All the Jews were Communists.” They began torturing Jews before any Germans gave orders to do so. “In some ways,” Segalchik who was there at the time, “the local assistants were many times crueler than their German bosses.” When the bodies of two prisoners from Myadel killed by the KGB during their retreat were found, a big funeral was organized by the new police chief, with German soldiers as honored guests, along with fiery speeches blaming the Jews and demanding revenge.
Not long after all the Jews of Dolhinov had been killed or fled, Haya Katzovitz ran into a woman named Liza, who had been her family’s housekeeper before the war. Haya asked her what it was like in Dolhinov now. She said, “All the Christian inhabitants of Dolhinov became wealthy. They confiscated the possessions that were left by the Jews.”
Yet even when non-Jews had to go along with the Germans, each individual among them still had a choice between sullen necessity and enthusiastic cooperation. The German emphasis was on assuring that the police chief was an enthusiastic and usually sadistic collaborator, as were the majority of poice. In the ranks, though, there were some policemen who behaved decently out of humanitarian feelings, personal friendships, and Polish patriotism. There was no clear criterion for knowing how an individual would behave since people once on good terms with Jews might be among the cruelest of all.
In Dolhinov, at least three of the policemen hated the Germans, were friendly toward the Jews, hated the Germans, and were ready to help the Soviet partisans. A true hero was Vlodia Maslovsky, the nephew of Dolhinov’s appointed mayor. The uncle asked Vlodia to join the police, but Vlodia who had many Jewish friends—he spoke German, Yiddish, and even some Hebrew in addition to Polish; had no desire to work with the Nazis. So he came to his friend Avraham Friedman for advice, proposing that if he did join he could provide information and warnings to the Jews, and Avraham agreed that this was a terrific plan.
Avraham was the only Jew in town who had a radio and heard General Sikorsky, leader of the Polish government in exile, announce his agreement with the Allies to raise a Polish army to fight for his country’s freedom. Friedman and his friends immediately wrote three leaflets describing the news, hoping even antisemitic policemen would be stirred by patriotic feelings. One was left for Maslovsky and the others for two other friendly policemen, Takovitch, the secretary of the force, and Maletzko. Friedman’s sister had the job of cleaning the police station so she snuck in the leaflets.
As soon as he saw it, Maslovsky realized it had been written by Friedman. He asked his friend, “How do you know this?”
Not wishing to reveal his source, Friedman said that some Polish teachers in nearby villagers had told him. But later, Friedman told him the truth and was able to supply another radio for the three patriotic policemen, it being kept in Takovitch’s house. The Jewish and Polish groups began discussing how to resist the Germans. The police even offered to supply money so weapons could be bought and a joint partisan group established, though this plan was never realized.
All three of the policemen, along with Takovitch’s brother who lived in a nearby village and hid Jews on several occasions, were able to save lives. For example, when the Germans invaded, Yosef Shinuk, a police official in Dolhinov under the Soviets, refused to leave without his family. He grew a beard, wore a black beret and glasses, and obtained a fake identity paper. For some weeks he hid at home but knew he finally fled to Kurinitz. A few months later, a collaborator there recognized him and informed a Dolhinov policeman. Fortunately, the policeman who took the report was Maslovsky who, instead of arresting Shinuk, told a Jewish friend to warn him. To rescue her husband, Rosa, Yosef’s wife, dressed up like a peasant and walked 22 miles to Kurinitz to pass the message to her husband. He escaped to another town, where he died only when the ghetto there was wiped out.
Mayors were often forced to take this job and did not necessarily have pro-Nazi attitudes either. The village mayor of Zamshutzi, a village just outside Dolhinov, Julius Korianovich, helped feed and protect Jews from the town who hid there. In nearby Dokshitz, the mayor, Sitchonk, was actually hiding a Jewish family named Kramer—who survived–at the moment he was carrying out German commands. Tragically, the partisans didn’t know this and killed him in a grenade attack late in the war.
Dolhinov itself was at first lucky in this respect. The Catholic priest was a very ethical man who had never engaged in antisemitism. The first German-appointed mayor, Zygmund Volk and police chief, Anton Krosovsky, were also decent local people, with the added advantage that Krosovsky was happy to trade favors for vodka. As a result, neither of them lasted very long in their posts. The Germans fired the mayor and appointed Maslovsky’s uncle, who was also no willing collaborator and whom they executed on a charge of sabotage within a year. As police chief, Krosovsky was replaced by a thug from Krivichi who had neither moral scruples nor local ties.
The truth is also that many Polish townspeople—especially with the town’s most responsible and conscientious citizens deported by the Soviets–were eager to turn on and turn in their Jewish neighbors. Both they and Byelorussian peasants from surrounding villages were eager for loot. One day, a peasant came to the Telis house, a family she knew from having been a customer at their store, to point out their dim and very limited future. “You have a lot of clothes and you’re not going to need them any more. Give them to me.”
Aside from personal sadism, there were three main motives that impelled collaborators: hatred of the Soviet Communists, thirst for loot, and hatred of the Jews. The Germans tried to link these things but while very successful in recruiting individuals, they never could get a mass movement going. The most obvious reason is that their need to exploit the local people plus a doctrine viewing them as racially inferior ensured that the Germans squeezed them badly.
Publicly, lip service was given to helping the locals against the Germans’ enemies but this rarely figured in reality. For example, General Lemelsen, commander of the 48th Panzer Corps, ordered his men to stop murdering (non-Jewish) civilians on June 25, 1941, explaining, “We want to free the civilian population from the yoke of Bolshevism and we need their labor force.”
But even Lemelsen admitted his order was not carried out. “This is murder! The German Wehrmacht is waging this war against Bolshevism, not against the united Russian peoples. We want to bring back peace, calm and order to this land which has suffered terribly for many years from the oppression of a Jewish and criminal group.” Moreover, he warned, such behavior would lead to the execution of captured German soldiers and inspire the Russians to fight to the death and never surrender. This is precisely what happened.
For example, when two big sleds carrying German army supplies hit mines near the village of Ladomiry the Germans slaughtered the entire male population and burned down all the houses. Consequently, partisan activity in the area increased, not so much because the population hated the Germans more but because they knew that death was the only alternative to resistance.
What the Germans, including Lemelson, did do far more successfully was to link tirelessly the Jews and Bolsheviks as a twin menace—an idea central in Nazi ideology—and offer rewards to collaborators. In a 1941 report, the Polish nationalist agent Jan Karski, who courageously spied on the Germans and brought out the first news about their mass murder of Jews, told a revealing anecdote passed on to him by a Polish official.
This man had fired an employee of the German-sponsored regime who had robbed a Jewish jewelry store in Warsaw. The robber complained to the Gestapo who called in the official.
“Why,” he asked the official, “did you fire him?”
Startled, the Pole replied that the dismissed man had committed a criminal act.
The German policeman responded: “It is permissible to take from a Jew verything….We are even anxious to see the Polish population made aware than any Pole may go up to any Jewish store” and take it for himself, “Whoever wishes may kill a Jew, and our law will not punish him for it.”
Given the realities of human nature, many responded to this call to enrich themselves. In a little town like Dolhinov, greed and covetousness seethed beneath the surface. Yet in such places there was also human decency and cross-communal friendships. In the occupation’s early days, SS reports showed that many Byelorussians were not eager to attack the Jews. The most remarkable such event is contained in a report by a Soviet agent operating behind enemy lines.
On July 23, 1941, in the village of Rubezhevichi, a German army officer gathered together the 26 local Jews, made them dig a trench, then ordered the Christian villagers to bury them alive. The Byelorussians refused. He then demanded the Byelorussians change places with the Jews and ordered the Jews to bury the Beyelorussians. They refused. Flustered, he simply had his men shoot down the Jews where they stood.
Did this really happen? One would like to believe it did. But either way the Jews were doomed.
Many peasants, both Poles and Byelorussians, would later help the partisans with supplies and information or even joined the units themselves—though this did not mean they wouldn’t persecute or kill Jews if given the opportunity. Others hid Jewish acquaintances or even complete strangers.
Yet far more townspeople pointed out Jewish hiding places to the Nazis—leading directly to the deaths of the Jews concealed there; peasants turned in Jews they saw or even informed on other farmers, leading to the murders of both the Jews and their hosts, as well as served as German spies on partisan activities. Neighbors rushed to loot Jewish property at the first opportunityDov Katzovitch of Dokshitz, near Dolhinov, recalled an incident that says it all. Outside town on a work detail, when he heard the machinegun sounds of a massacre there, he headed back when quiet returned to see if his family had survived. He recalled:
“On the way I met two women holding big bundles, speaking Polish with each other and telling each other about what had happened. I recognized one of them for I had gone to school with her son. This son was…in the local police. It seems that the son knew beforehand what was to occur and advised the women to profit from [taking] the Jews’ things. When she saw me she was shocked for a minute and then started to scream: `Why didn’t you report with the rest of the Jews?’ I did not answer and walked away.”
For a Jew to be alive was an unacceptable effrontery.
Only compared with the Jews were Soviet prisoners of war better off. Hundreds of thousands were captured in the war’s early days. As the German army marched east through Dolhinov, columns of captured Russians staggered west. A Polish resident named Klementowicz described the prisoners as “a horrible sight,” the enlisted men staggered along like ghosts, barefoot and so hungry they ate grass growing alongside the road. When one of them could go no further, the German soldiers shot him and left his body on the road. In contrast, though, the officers were transported by carts as a reward for surrendering.
Dolhinov’s Jews watched and took pity. There was a prisoner camp, riddled with dysentery, on the town’s eastern outskirts, next to the swamp and below the hill where the Jewish cemetery stood. One of the tasks done by Jewish forced laborers was to take them food and to bury the many dead.
Political commissars were shot immediately and some German army divisions also separated out and killed Jewish soldiers, too. Senior commanders authorized the killing of prisoners but only if done under orders. In the West, British and French prisoners were treated properly but in the East other rules entirely prevailed. Lacking good winter gear, German soldiers stripped the Russians of their warmer clothing and boots, leaving them shod only in crude wooden clogs, and ensuring they died of exposure. Fifty-seven percent of Soviet prisoners, about 3 million people, died in German captivity during the war. The prisoners suffered especially during the area’s deadly winters. Jewish burial crews were kept busy until the day they were themselves buried.
Now I have to write what I’ve been putting off as long as possible. Strangely, I feel that as long as I don’t write about the deaths of specific people they are still somehow alive. If the tortures have not been set down on paper the victims are still untortured though all the deeds have been done long ago, the story is finished in the world of senses, and all has turned to dust. To write of this is to make their memory live but also in a sense to kill them once again.
The killings, which had been going on in German-occupied Poland for eighteen months now started in what had been Soviet-occupied Poland. Already, on June 30, just a week after the invasion, a German Justice Ministry memo explained, in paragraph 4: “It may safely be assumed that in the future there will be no more Jews in the annexed Eastern territories.”
The first phase of implementing this plan began in Brest on June 28-29, with the SS killing 5000 Jews; in Pinsk, August 5-7, 4500. In Slonim all 15,000 Jews were killed during those same two days; in Bobrusk, 25,000; Mogilev, to Dolhinov’s southeast, 20,000; Vitebsk east of Dolhinov, 20,000; and in Slutsk, 18,000. In Rakov, they were burned alive in the synagogue. Himmler and Adolf Eichmann inspected the Minsk ghetto and ordered gassing vans. After this initial frenzy there was a pause, a stay of execution for the rest.
Yet even this was not all. For with their killing apparatus less developed further west and the concentration camps not yet fully ready, the Germans imported Jews to murder by gunfire.
Far away in the village of Turie, Czechoslovakia lived my cousin from my mother’s side, Marie Dub, 64 years old, who ran a little shop there. She lived in house number 213 with her son Jozef Dub, 41, proprieter of the Eichenbaum Timber Company, and his wife, Ilsa Meisel Dub, 35, and their daughter Ilsa, 9. They had never been a few miles from home. Suddenly, they found themselves on a train to Lublin, Poland, deported by Nazi Germany’s Slovakian client state—which actually paid the Germans to dispose of them—and shot down there. My even more distant cousin 64-year-old Olga Janniz Lowenbein, born 75 years to the day before me in Trumau, Bohemia, was taken from her apartment at Castlegasse 16, Vienna, and sent to die in the massacre of the Minsk ghetto on November 28, 1941.
Such individual stories mean something more immediate to us. Yet one must imagine football stadiums packed to capacity for town after town, in each seat one of them, everyone a human being a—as Jewish tradition puts it—universe in their own right.
Is there anything left to say about the Shoah after so much has been written? Yes, quite a lot. The prevailing image of the Shoah is from the west of Europe. The images are of urban Jews virtually indistinguishable from neighbors, assembled, put into cattle cars, transported by rail to concentration camps, selected out for life or death, and either gassed and burned immediately or forced to live in Hell for months or years until they die of starvation.
The east of Europe was quite different. The Dolhinov Jews were not trying to be French, German, Italian, Russian, or Polish. This was not some universalist parable of man’s inhumanity to man: it was a massacre of people because they were Jews, based on all the ideas and claims that had always furnished—and still do—the rationale for such hatred, slander, and violence, and for that reason alone.
Not a single one of them went to a concentration camp. They were,either marched a few blocks through their own home town, past buildings they’d lived or worked among all their lives, then burned or shot to death. Or they were shot down in their own living rooms and yards, a medieval-style massacre far more like a serial killer’s rampage than redolent of modern assembly-line methods. In a sense, the latter tragedy was far more bizarre than that of the camps.
In Dolhinov, they had continued to live in or near their own homes. Within the confines of those walls they lived as they had always done. One day the Germans murdered the next day—as if they were off-duty and had punched a time clock—they left everyone alone. One minute Dolhinov Jews were living their daily lives, wearing their own clothes, sitting at their dinner table, the next they were being machinegunned as many of their neighbors cheered.
And finally, unlike in the west, some would have a chance to fight back, but only when it was too late for almost all of them.
From the time of the Germans’ arrival, in the words of Haya Katzovitz, “The entire Jewish population with no exception became outlawed.” Ida Friedman’s father dryly remarked, “Don’t think that they’ll leave us alone.” On the first day, when Esfira Dimenstein wanted to go visit her grandmother, a German soldier and local policeman stopped her and ordered her back inside until orders were issued on what the Jews must do.
Immediately, Jews were ordered to wear white arm bands. Then, on the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’av—the day when all the worst disasters of their history were said to have happened, starting with destruction of the First and Second Temples—the decree was promulgated in Dolhinov that all must wear yellow Stars of David front and back to brand them.
Jewish children were barred from attending school; Jewish adults from doing business or praying in synagogue. New decrees found creative ways to confiscate any financial assets held by Jews. The first to be killed were five men, four of them Jewish, who had worked for the Soviet administration. The Jewish community, including all of the children, was forced to stand in the market square and watch the executions.
Restrictions were endless. Jews could walk only in streets, or on sidewalks. Jews could not have their own businesses or work for non-Jews but only for the Germans. They could not be out after a certain hour, could not go to villages except with German permission, and could not buy food in the market. The food given them was half the smallest amount given to non-Jews on their rations’ cards. Their cows, bicycles, and radios were confiscated as was warm clothing.
And in addition there were acts not part of Berlin’s explicit plan: ceaseless extortion both by German officials and the police for gold and silver, diamonds and furs, gold and anything else of value. They demanded loot from the Judenrat which knew who had such things and could get them. In exchange, they promised the Jews would not be killed. Such promises were worthless, but if such orders were not followed many would have been executed immediately.
Part of the Germans’ goal was to demoralize the Jews;the rest was to isolate them and to convince Poles and Byelorussians to despise them. To help Jews in any way—even to give a potato to one—was punishable by death, not only the death of the individual but that of his entire family. Such a sentence, however, was generally limited to those who hid Jews or, later, helped partisans. In contrast, those who turned in Jews might be given a horse or cow; extra food, vodka, or tobacco, and perhaps a rare but prized bar of soap.
What most Dolhinov Jews experienced during the first eight months of the German occupation was grinding work, constant threats to their individual lives, and growing hunger. While a small number of those with special skills—the pharmacist, doctors, dentist, flax dealers, and a couple of the best tailors and shoemakers received passes and some privileges, the main two jobs were road repair and labor in the fields of peasants. Esfira Dimenshtein’s uncle and father were set to shoeing horses, a vital part of the German military transport system as well as for peasants’ needs. Her mother worked in the fields and the best day during this time was when a peasant gave her nine potatoes to take back to her family. Otherwise, whatever could bring in any money or traded was sold to buy food.
Esfira and other girls had the job of cleaning houses and doing laundry for the Germans. The soldiers threw them food scraps like dogs, some of which they ate and the rest brought the rest back to their families. Once, a German soldier hit her, dissatisfied by her missing places while cleaning under his bed. But the real problem was rape. At least one among their number was raped and murdered.
For Dolhinov’s Jews, death was a daily companion but did not seem an inevitable host. Rather than walk in the road, it was better to travel through the backyards’ of houses. Windows in each room were inspected for usefulness as potential escape routes. By staying in your home, avoiding contact with e Germans, and obeying their ordinances, one might hope to survive. Otherwise, as Gendel Kaplan of Dolhinov recalled, “There was only one punishment for breaking any rule—execution.”
One day, an SS man passing through town lost his leather whip. The officer demanded it be found. Frantically, the Judenrat offered a big reward and bade people immediately bring to the mayor’s office every conceivable whip, strap, or lash. But when the one he wanted could not be found, five—or eight, depending on the witness—were chosen more or less at random, were forced to dig a pit. The Jews were forcibly gathered to watch their execution.
Yet if individual Germans wanted to behave decently they were able to do so, at least when others weren’t looking. Esther Dokszycky recalls a tall dark German who behaved very cruelly and a red-haired one who told her, “I promised my mother I won’t kill anyone,” and gave her a piece of bread telling her to hide it “or they’ll kill me.” He shook his head sadly, “But I don’t know what they’ll do to you.”
At the same time, though, the Germans also knew how to keep the Jews off-balance in order to maintain control and wear down their victims. For instance, my cousin, Victor Rubin, then fourteen years old, had the job of going to the forest to cut firewood. One day in the winter of 1941, he hitched up the family horse to their cart and with his younger brother, Arieh, and another boy.
Intercepted on the way back, the police stole their horse, took their wood, beat them up, and threw them in jail overnight. The Judenrat heard about it and got them released, probably saving their lives. Victor’s face was covered with blood and he still carries a scar from that day. A council member took them to Dr. Kotler who fixed up the injured boys. The next day, when a German officer saw Victor’s condition, he acted shocked. “Who did this to you?” he asked, as if offering to be his protector. Victor merely mumbled something about an accident.
Meanwhile, with blood still on Victor’s face, the final decisions of the Final Solution were being made. At the January 20, 1942, Wannsee Conference of high-ranking German officials, a death sentence was passed on the remaining Jews in eastern Poland, whose number was there estimated to be 846,000 people. A map sent January 31 to the SS commander, marked with coffins with the number of Jews already murdered in each place. In Belarus, it said, only 230,000 had so far been killed. Much work remained to be done. None of this was known in Dolhinov, but people were starting to get the idea.
Everyone was looking for a way out but usually not finding one. Bushke Katzovitz’s mother, Hana, for example, begged a Christian friend and offered to pay if she took in her daughter, who had already proven on her train ride home that she could pass as a Pole. The woman said “No.” It was too risky.
Do I blame her? Not really. The houses are tiny, every individual is registered, and it would be hard to conceal someone very long in the outbuildings behind the homes. But the countryside, in isolated farms and villages, was the real place where refuge had to be found. Several dozen peasants in the surrounding villages did save people’s lives, always at considerable risk to themselves.
Yet there was one notable exception in Dolhinov itself which revealed how courageous such an act could be and what terrible consequences it entailed. The wealthy Navoichik family hid Dr. Rabinovich, a refugee from Glebokie, his wife and two children. A neighbor informed on them. In the summer of 1942, German soldiers raided the house. They killed the Rabinovich family along with Mrs. Navoichik and two of her children who were home at the time. The soldiers then burned the house to the ground. Only Mr. Navoichik and one of his daughters who just happened to be outside of town at that moment survived. They fled to the partisans and along with many of the Jewish refugees, were evacuated to the USSR later that year.
The real problem—and opportunity—would have been to hide Jews for a few hours during the two big German killing sprees, which lasted, respectively, one and three days. Very few people to my knowledge did that simple service, though some at least didn’t turn in Jews they found hiding in their outbuildings.
My complaint is not that so much that no townspeople hid Jews but rather that, when the time came, so many townspeople went out of their way to turn them in so they were murdered on the spot, and then stole all their property.
The first eight months of German occupation were horrible enough but it was just a beginning. Dolhinov Jews started to hear in late 1941 about massacres in one town after another. Just before dawn, one night in October, there was a knock on the Segalchick family’s door. It was Aunt Rachel and her daughter Lyuba. They said that yesterday, on Yom Kippur, all the Jews of Plashensitz were taken into the forest and murdered. In the third week of October 1941, during Simhat Torah, in Dolhinov arrived news that 54 Jews were killed in Kurenitz, just 20 miles away.
Among the survivors arriving after the Plashensitz massacre was a Jew from Minsk named Leib Mindel who moved in with the Segalchik family. By that time Mindel, an energetic man with strong leadership qualities, had survived three German massacres. He became Segalchik’s close friend. Mindel and Segalchik talked about the certainty that death would soon come to Dolhinov. To prepare, they dug two hideouts: one a hole in the barn of neighbor Yosef Kremer, four by four yards, reinforced with sturdy wood posts, and heavily camouflaged. The second was inside the family cowshed, concealed by a false wall.
The only reason why the Dolhinov Jews were still alive was because the German military and the civilian ministeries responsible for the army’s supply still needed Jewish labor. The Nazi leadership, however, demanded their ideology be fulfilled. A March 26, 1942, meeting of eleven German ministries sealed the book. Himmler declared: “The Eastern Territories will be freed of all Jews. I alone am responsible to the Fuhrer and do not want any discussion.” And that was that.
On March 3, the Germans murdered the Chabad rabbi and 22 other men. It is not clear precisely why, whether an act of random sadism or a deliberate attempt to destroy the community’s leadership before the main massacre. But even if people thought their only hope of survival was to escape to the forest, they could not last more than a couple of days during winter
“Every day brought another terrible tale of destruction in the towns around us,” Segalchik recalled. On Wednesday, March 12, survivors told of the wiping out of all the Jews left in Ilya, shot outside the town. There was no doubt that the time was drawing close when it would be their turn. About twenty young men were determined to try and they sent Mindel and Segalchik to talk with a friendly Christian village who they thought would help.
The two men made a mistake, however, and in this situation first mistakes were usually the last as well. On March 15, they walked out of town carrying axes, saws, and a letter from the mayor saying they were going to cut wood. But a half-mile out of town, a motley posse caught up with them: the police chief and a German officer on a sled, other police on horses and bicycles.
The pursuers yelled in Polish, “Stop and put your hands up!” There was no hope of outrunning them so Sigalchik and Mindel complied. Immediately, the police began beating them. One hit Mindel on the head with a rifle, knocking him to the ground unconscious amidst a pool of blood. Segalchik was badly beaten but only on the back and shoulders, as if they did not want him to relapse into the comfort of unconsciousness. One policeman hit him so hard that his rifle broke.
Dragging the two men, the police tied them to the back of the sled and turned the horses back to the town. The prisoners had to run behind. Then they lashed the horses so the two men fell and were dragged along. Back in town, they took them to a well and the police poured buckets of water drenching them and making them shake feverishly in the cold. The next stop was the police station where two German communications’ officers, who maintained the telephone lines, were waiting. They delighted in beating up Jews for minor infractions like walking on the sidewalk or not taking off their hats in their presence. German regular army officers often delighted in persecuting Jews for fun rather than due to orders.
The German officers and the police chief beat Sigalchik and Mindel continuously asking about their contacts with partisans. The more they claimed to know nothing, the more they were beaten. Mindel, covered with blood, lost consciousness again while Sigalchik prayed for a swift death. As he lay on the floor, apparently dead to the world, Sigalchik heard the phone conversation between an officer, reporting the capture of two Jewish partisans, and the SS post in Dokshitz. Sigalchik could have no doubt what the other end was saying: Tomorrow we’ll arrive to interrogate, then execute them.
The sun had set, the last they expected to see, when they were thrown into a cell, three yards’ square with two big windows blocked only by bars, not glass. The night was cold and in the storm and their drenched clothes the two prisoners shivered. Thinking there was no chance of escape. The police didn’t even bother to stand guard but merely locked the cell door.
No rest came to the two men. Silent midnight came. Suddenly, they heard steps outside. Sigalchik looked out the window and saw the seeming mirage of his oldest sister, Peshia Riva Katz. She crept up to the window asking, through her sobs, if they were still alive and if there was anything she could do to help. Sigalchik replied, “You have no time to cry now, you must do everything possible to get us out of here. Run home and bring an axe. It would be better if your husband Yerochmiel came to help us.”
She ran to the house and after half an hour, Katz arrived with an axe hidden in his jacket. He tried unsuccessfully to break the bars, then pushed the axe inside to let them try. Suddenly, they realized that the bars were attached to the wall only by heavy nails. Pre-war Dolhinov had no need to imprison any criminals more dangerous than those who’d consumed too much vodka. In fifteen minutes, they twisted the nails free and removed enough bars to squeeze out. Then they ran to their hideout in the Kremer barn. There, Sigalchik tied a wet towel around Mindel’s head and, exhausted, they fell asleep on a haystack.
What happened was this: SS men had arrived to continue the interrogation the next day and find their two prisoners had escaped can easily be imagined. They screamed for the Judenrat’s leader and warned that if the men weren’t returned fast the whole community would be wiped out. The Jewish police looked frantically but only Sigalchik’s family knew where they were. Nobody talked.
Saturday passed with the town’s Jews in a panic. The Gestapo men left that evening, emptyhanded. But not for long.
It is before dawn of Monday, March 28, 1942. In Vileika the regional headquarters of the SS is busy. Who is in the trucks and vehicles heading out for a day of murder in Dolhinov isn’t precisely clear. It is probably an SS unit perhaps accompanied by part of the German Einsatzgruppe B and certainly by a Lithuanian or Latvian police company.
The four Einsatzgruppe exist solely to murder Jews. In charge of Belarus is the700-man B branch. Its commander is named Erich Naumann, a minor bureaucrat before the war. Far from being a collection of thugs and criminals, the unit had been assembled as a group of dedicated Nazi cadre. Many had been failures in civilian life but were distinct successes as cold-blooded killers. They included a bank clerk, opera singer, lawyer, Lutheran minister, and a dentist. Those who wanted to be relieved of this duty were easily able to obtain transfers.
Backing up this German contingent were Lithuanian and Latvian volunteers of the security police units. Was it the 2nd, 3rd, or 12th Lithuanian Police Auxiliary Battalion; 15th Police Regiment or 255th Security Police detachment? Probably the best guess is the Latvian 18th Police Battalion. All had massacred Jews and Red Army prisoners and were stationed in the area. Jewish survivors would later always speak of Latvians or at least of soldiers who didn’t speak German. But the Jews in Dolhinov were too busy at the time to examine their credentials more thoroughly.
By dawn, their trucks were roaring through Kurzenitz. Jews there heard them and knew that death was on its way. One can forgive their sigh of relief on realizing the trucks were rolling toward victims in other towns.
Perhaps the escape of the Sigalchik and Mindel made the SS deviate from its timetable. But the SS’s follow-up report after the massacre admitted it wasn’t satisfied with the outcome. They had come to kill all the Jews but caught “only part” because they unexpectedly found that their prey “had created real bunkers for hiding in during pogroms.” One of these was three stories deep. But since the Germans found it in the end, we have no details from those who made and hid in it. It seems, if one could take pride in this, that of all the Jewish towns in Belarus, Dolhinov presented the toughest challenge for them. In the end, they only wiped out about half the community.
While they had no idea what day would be the fateful one, by this point the Dolhinov Jews knew what was coming. Too many rumors, too many refugees had reached them for illusions to survive. They knew the Germans would come before dawn, surround the town, and spring their trap in the morning. “Where could we find a shelter?” everyone asked. Shimon Gitlitz remembered that his house had a small basement closed up for years. He secretly dug it out and that gave his sister’s family the same idea.
Someone in the family awoke to the sound of stamping boots, barked commands, the wails of children, and sobs of women. The rest were hurriedly roused and the parents rushed their five children into their basement, joined by the Shaingarts, their neighbors from across the street. Shimon moved a heavy water container over the entry door to hide it from view. But that meant he was also unable to enter himself. He ran to hide himself outdoors the whole day, and the cold weather badly froze his feet.
But the family had still another problem. David, the baby, was crying despondently and his mother feared the noise would give the family away. So she ran to a Christian neighbor, handed over her fur coat and promised if the woman would conceal her she’d bring a gold watch afterward. The woman refused, her attempts to find shelter failed, and the Germans killed her and the baby. Later, the Christian woman showed up at the Kazovitz’s house claiming she had helped and demanding the watch. A single misjudgment about a person’s character cost your life.
Meanwhile, the rest of the family hid undisturbed. When night fell and the Germans left, Yankel Furman, stepfather of the Kazovitz family, returned, knocked on the door and let them out. They crawled from the basement to realize with a shock how few of their friends remained alive.
Through the luck of the draw, Chana Brunstein might have had the easiest time that day. She was inside cooking when a German soldier entered. He should have forced her out to line up with the other Jews but instead—Humane? Hungry? Lazy?—he merely asked her for some eggs and left. Esfira Dimenshtein and her family were saved because a friendly Polish policeman—Maslovsky or Maletzko–had warned them that the Germans were coming the next day. They made a big hole in their grandmother’s barn and stayed there until the morning of the second day.
Avraham Friedman took a dozen relatives and neighbors to the house of his friends, the policemen Maslovsky and Takovich, who said they’d hide him but it was too dangerous to conceal such a large group. So they ran to one of the barns behind a Christian’s house, went inside, and locked the door. Friedman stayed in the policemen’s house. When he finally emerged after two days, he found bodies strewn in the streets but his brother and sister, his aunt and her children had survived. The barn’s owner discovered them but didn’t turn them in.
Gendel Kaplan’s relatives found the police less friendly. While most of the family had dug a hiding place, his 82-year-old grandmother, Rhoda, could take no more. Along with her son, who perhaps thought his status as a craftsman might protect her, she stayed seated in the parlor. When the police entered, the uncle handed them his document and said as a relative his mother was also protected. They returned the document, nodded seriously, then shot her dead right in front of him.
But most Dolhinov Jews who survived did so only by hiding. Typical was the Friedman family, whose shelter was dug in the two-yard-wide space between their big stove and the wall. The resulting space was only 1 yard by 2 yards, and the family members had to sit crushed together for a full day, hot, uncomfortable but still alive.
My cousins, the Rubin family, were one of the few which had a hiding place prepared long before the First Action. Rasia Rubin’s brother, Benjamin, had worked for the Soviets during their time in Dolhinov. Once the Germans arrived, the family hid him in a hole they dug. Knowing Dolhinov was too hot for him, Benjamin fled to Kurenitz, where he was finally captured and killed. But when the First Action came, the hole served the family well.
The least likely survivor in Dolhinov that day was Shmuel Kugel of Pleshchenitsy. Kugel had only escaped the massacre in his own town because he was outside with a work party. All day he had sat alone in the cold rain. That night, he went home to find his wife gone and the locks changed. One of his neighbors had wasted no time in grabbing the house. With only the clothes on his back he’d taken a sack for a hat, a branch for a walking stick and spent four days pacing through forests or fields, sleeping in haystacks, and being fed by peasants, “as they wept over my fate and their own.”
Arriving in Dolhinov, he was taken in by relatives who were mourning one of their own, executed because of the SS man’s lost whip. Now Kugel was in the middle of another massacre. Some of those living in the same building as him were so exhausted they didn’t even try to hide. “You can’t save yourself anyway,” they said, “you’re just torturing yourself.” Nevertheless, Kugel and nine others hid in the attic. The Germans came in and looked around several times but never found them.
One woman, driven mad by fear, ran from her shelter and was caught by the Germans. They promised that if she showed them her family’s hideout they would let the Jews there go free. Out of her mind, she did so. The Germans promptly murdered her entire family, then killed her, too.
Christian townspeople, of course, had no need to hide. Some turned their neighbors’ distress into material gain, looting their possessions, even clothes. Others locked themselves in, trembling at their own fate. When asked many years later what went through his mind when they saw Jewish neighbors being dragged away, a Polish resident of another town replied, “We were thinking that we might be next.”
That’s what the Beyelorussian hospital maintenance man Leonid Andreyovitch thought on that day as he fearfully peered out the window. What he saw was remarkable: a parade of Jews, being marched down his street under the guns of German soldiers, Lithuanian or Latvian security police, and Polish or Byelorussian local police
Boris Kozinitz, who had relatives in Dolginov and escaped there a week later, told what it was like to be in that situation, as he had been when the same units wiped out the Jews in his town just 48 hours before.
Germans and their collaborators grabbed Jews off the street, broke into houses and pulled people out until they assembled large groups which were then marched down the road, surrounded by several ranks of policemen. As they walked toward the market square, the prisoners could see non-Jewish townspeople watching indifferently.
When they arrived by the square, where many of them had worked all their lives in the small adjoining shops, they were ordered to sit and wait. Some fell prostrate onto the ground and wept. Many prayed. Most hoped it was just some re-registration, minor humiliation, or even the execution of a small number who would be selected out of the group.
A few ran for it, and were shot down, one of them falling within reach of Kozinitz. Two men made a break for it and got pretty far. A submachine gun opened up on them, they fell down. But, when the shooting stopped, one got up and took off again. Police fire brought him down, too. None of those who ran for it escaped in either town.
What can one say in such circumstances? Kozinitz’s friend, Gdalia Levin, had chronic tuberculosis and so was used to facing death. He whispered in Kozinitz’s ear, “Take a good look at the trees and the houses, you shall not see them again. These will stay after we are gone, nothing changed, but we will not. The world will keep on existing but many Jews will not be in it.”
One man, however, had some small role in determining his fate. A German officer pulled out a man named Lipkind, a member of the Judenrat. The officer said, “You, as a community elder must see all your community being killed and we will kill you last.”
In response, Lipkind charged a Polish policeman named Komolka, hit him in the face and then went back to his place among the others. The officer asked Komolka if he wanted Lipkind punished. The policeman replied, “No, there’s no need, he’ll be shot soon anyway.”
But how did Kozinitz and some of those in Dolhinov survive this fatal assembly? As he tells the story:
“I was approached by Sonder-Führer Hartman and was called aside. He called also my father, my stepmother Gutte and her daughter Haya. My brother, Haim, approached Sonder-Führer Ungerman presented his pass and added that he was employed by the Germans. As an answer he received a slap in the face. He began to run toward the Jewish cemetery and I clearly saw that he succeeded in reaching it. However, [local witnesses] told me later that my brother was killed by [the Polish policeman] Witwizky from Gleboki, who ran after him with a submachine gun.”
Esther Dokshitsky was among those marched to the main square of Dolhinov. More and more Jews arrived. One said that the Germans would send them to a concentration camp; another insisted they would all be killed. A mother holding a baby was screaming. One of the Germans grabbed the baby, said, “We’re not going to waste a bullet on this one,” and smashed its head onto an electrical pole, then dropped the dead child on the ground.
The German commander began reading the names of men, the doctor, dentist, pharmacist, and others. Esther’s father and uncle were flax merchants and on the list. Since his own two daughters and wife were safely in hiding, the uncle grabbed his sister and her two children claiming them as his. A policeman escorted them to a house and warned them to stay inside. Someone said, “Even if we survive, what will we eat?”
“I don’t think we’ll have to eat,” answered Esther’s father. “Why are we better than the other ones?”
After those who the Germans wanted to keep alive were removed, the soldiers and police opened up with rifles and machineguns and mowed down hundreds of people. They fell in place, a few living for a few seconds more. Others were forced into two hay warehouses on which gasoline was poured from jerrycans and then set alight. Having been used so long to store hay the buildings were infinitely flammable.
Anyone trying to escape was machinegunned. The screams of those burned were terrible, the cries of those who tried to escape were cut short by the bullets. At 6 PM it was quitting time, and the murders stopped. Any Jew caught after that was left completely alone, as if the Germans were indifferent to their continued existence.
How did the Germans, Poles, Latvians, and Lithuanians who did this deed feel about it? It didn’t bother them at all. Probably, they enjoyed it. They did what they set out to do and knew what they did. After all, it was only one of many towns where they conducted their performance. Certainly, none were reluctant; no pangs of conscience plagued them. Do we need to know any more than that?
Is there some universal lesson here about whether they were mistreated as children, denied sufficient maternal affection, tasted poverty? For all practical reasons, this is rubbish. After all, there will always be such people and they will commit such deeds if afforded the opportunity, given justification, and assured of immunity. There will always be such childhoods and societies, always be such regimes and ideologies.
Philosophers, psychiatrists, and social workers have defined the world that creates such individuals. The point is to stop them.
They left, went back to the base and no doubt had a fine drinking party, recounting amusing incidents of that day.
Night fell in Dolhinov. And at dark, or in some cases only the next morning, survivors came out to see what and who remained. The Dimenshteins heard a cousin named Vichne Hodas, shouting, “Come out! They’ve killed everybody!” She’d survived in the home of a Christian neighbor but her parents were killed. Her father, who was very pious, decided he was ready to be a martyr if fate so willed and refused to hide.
Those who emerged found homes wrecked by looters, both uniformed and neighbors. It was like emerging from a bomb shelter after nuclear war. Esfira Dimenshtein saw people shredded by bullets, lying in pools of blood. She recognized friends, schoolmates, relatives. Gendel Kaplan recalled, “When we came out of our hideout we could not breathe. We were frozen with horror.” The smell of dead bodies everywhere and, incongruously, feathers drifted threw the air languidly, torn from pillows cut up by looters in hope that treasures were inside. Blood smeared the cottage walls.
Esther Telis heard some of her non-Jewish neighbors discussing the event. “The Germans are not very smart,” said one. “They should have killed the Jews in winter when it’s too cold for them to run to the woods and survive. Instead, they waited until the spring and now it’s too warm.”
Surrounded by enemies, having seen so many horrors, it was hard not to be demoralized and give up entirely. “We the survivors,” reflected Avraham Friedman, “became lost shadows living in the memories of the dear ones we lost. We walked around with no purpose. How could we ever overcome this torture and agony? “
A Jew from another town, Eliezer Shod from Krivitzi wrote of the same period, “
”We carried on feeling the deepest humiliation and not an ounce of self-respect. Every moment of the day passed through darkness and depression, and nights were filled with terror and nightmares. In the depths of disillusion, sometimes we felt that we were the living dead. We walked both in and outside the realm of the living.”
It was easy to succumb to this fatalism and passivity. To continue struggling for escape and survival took an almost superhuman effort.
And, of course, the Germans of the garrison and their police force were still there. They demanded that all the remaining Jews register and promised no more would be killed. The surviviors were made to collect the bodies as they grieved for lost ones and sobbed, not only for those who were dead but also for themselves. Their trials were by no means over. Only now they could have no doubt as to the verdict and sentence.
Haya Katzovitz’s account cannot be surpassed in the telling:
“We collected the bodies from the streets and the backyards, their homes and their hiding places, and buried them in a common brotherly grave. The survivors became shadow-like creatures. The fear from what we recognized were imminent atrocities against us, kept us awake at nights. People worked hard for the Germans hoping that they would be saved and the Germans promised the Judenrat that no more actions would occur. We all knew that we could not trust that promise; still the will to survive was very strong. There was only one case of suicide by a person who returned home after the massacre and found out that his entire family was killed.”
Sigalchik along with Mindel, the most unlikely survivors of all, sat in the hideout in his neighbor’s barn, knowing that every breath they drew might be the last, hearing the barking of German orders, the screams of those seized, and the shots that cut them short.
They emerged from their hideout to see “from afar the flames from burning barns. We could also smell burning fuel mixed with the smell of burning human flesh and clothing everywhere….There was a ghastly quiet on all the streets of the town, and we trudged amidst this deathly cold silence.”
Their breath before them in white clouds, deep white snow crunching beneath their feet, they walked to the forest. All night long, since it was unsafe to light a fire, they had to pace to keep from freeing, “like caged foxes,” according to Sigalchik’s telling comparison. Many times, after all, he had seen such foxes at the fur farm when he brought them food. They had no hope of escape but could only wait for their execution. And yet soon that very experience at the fox farm would save Sigalchik’s life and that of practically every other survivor of Dolhinov.
Meanwhile, the night goes on endlessly. What thoughts come to a man who has left behind his mother and siblings, his friends, whose state of life or death he knows not. For Sigalchik, more than any other Jew in Dolhinov there is also a sense of guilt, “Would they have not done it if my friend and I had sacrificed ourselves?”
Looking at other towns’ experiences, it doesn’t seem like it would have made a difference. This is what Sigalchik concludes rationally–“We knew it was only an illusion that the massacre could have been prevented”–but in his heart can he accept that not-guilty verdict entirely? Is this a factor in his restless need thereafter for revenge, to purge himself of a sense that somehow those murdered souls lost at least some days of life due to him? His paradox is another reminder of why it was so difficult for individual Jews to flee, saving themselves yet placing others in jeopardy.
No sleep, no rest, no comfort.
The day brings little warmth and they stay concealed. The next night they arrived at a little farmhouse on the forest edge and see candlelight in the window. They knock on the door and are met kindly. The farmer asks them to sit down, pulls down the heavy drapes so no one would see them. And then he tells his own tale. That very day he’d gone into town and saw the surviving Jews walking around, disturbed by no one. The two men want to stay in the forest but it’s clear that Mindel, still bleeding from his head wounds, won’t live much longer if they do.
Segalchik insists they return to town for a few days. Once Mindel heals and the weather improves, they will try again. They sneak back to find his mother, alive and whole, greeting them at the door of the family house. They hide in the barn but still hear the talk of the streets through Segalchik’s relatives bringing food and news. “If it weren’t for Segalchik and Mindel trying to join the partisans there would have been no disaster,” people complain. The more sensible have a different version: their deeds merely made the massacre come sooner.
No sooner had the Jews buried their dead—of course, there were no casualties whatsoever on the other side or among non-Jewish townspeople–that the Germans, in early April, unleashed their new plague. All Jews must leave their homes and move into a small area along Borisov Street which would be their ghetto, into whose houses between 1500 and 2000 people must crowd into every corner. They’re allowed to take only what might be fit into a wheelbarrow. The Judenrat makes housing arrangements. Ina Freedman’s family moved into a house with six others. A dozen people or more would have to share a single room in the little cottages. Jail cells would have been more spacious.
But before they left their homes forever, Jews had one more task to perform. Like Haya Katzovitz’s mother, Hana, they burned belongings they couldn’t take so these don’t fall into their rapacious neighbors’ hands. It’s an admission of knowing they won’t return. Smoke rose from fireplaces of the Jewish houses. And then they walked to the ghetto area, a parade of Jews carrying the last of their possessions, but none of their hopes.
The Katzovitz family, the Riar family, and a refugee from the Polish city of Lodj lived in one room of a house; the family of Schreibman—Hana Katzovitz’s brother, the family of Shimon Gitlitz, and his sister-in-law, the recently widowed Rachel Katz and her baby, dwelt in the other room. The kitchen, however, was not left lonely as two single people moved in there. The Friedman family, which like everyone else had their own small cottage, now lived in a dwelling of the same dimensions with six others.
Next, the prisoners are made to build a barbed wire barrier inside a wooden fence to make this area their prison. Jewish police patrol inside; a detachment of 10 local German-recruited police outside. Immediately, the Jews looked for weak points or, as Avraham Friedman and Sigalchik did, created and camouflaged escape routes as they worked on the fence. One they found was a little shed behind a house, with a long-forgotten door opening onto the street outside. It’s marked down as a good escape route. But when the time came, perhaps it was not so forgotten after all—those who tried to use it were killed without exception. They also begin digging out holes and hiding places.
Observing Jewish law as best they could, they baked matzoh for Passover and said their prayers, more fervently than ever. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.”
But of course death was their companion for every waking hour. Arieh Rubin continues his woodcutting. Accompanied by guards, the detail walked about three miles outside of town, chopped down the trees, and dragged the wood back. It’s backbreaking labor but also a privileged task. Not only did it allow him to get out of town into the fresh air and open fields, but there’s a chance for encountering peasants who might gift a potato or two for his family.
On the morning of April 27, 1942, a strange feeling came over Arieh he’d never felt before. Some premonition made him feel that no matter what happened—even if the Germans came to shoot him in his bed—he must not go to work that day. His mother pleaded with him, fearful of what might happen if he didn’t get up and report for work. Perhaps he’d be shot. Each decision, usually so trivial, had become weighted down with gravestones. But Arieh was far more fearful, albeit inexplicably so, of what would happen if he did.
The seven other men went out to the woods as usual. Everything seemed normal. When they were half-way back, the soldiers suddenly stopped and shot them all down. One of the men, Hersch Sperber, fell with a bullet in his head. A German soldier kicked him to make sure he was dead. But he wasn’t. After all were gone—to the next world or back to their barracks, respectively–and darkness came over the land, Sperber awoke and found himself alive. He staggered to his feet, ran into the woods, and snuck back into town, reaching the hospital. Dr. Kotler cut out the bullet and saved him.
The next day, the Germans again surrounded the town in the Second Action. Sperber survived hiding in a hole. He eventually came to the land of Israel where he died only in 2007, almost six decades later, having fathered three children who would not otherwise have been born.
But the other six men were still dead. And so would Arieh have been, except for that strange, powerful feeling that he cannot explain to this day.
Only then were rumors starting to spread of Red Army soldiers in the nearby woods and the vision of their return. Not just bandits or ragged escaped prisoners, but a real army of liberation. The Germans themselves proved it by posting threats to kill anyone who helped the partisans. They circulated articles about alleged German victories over these guerrillas. Such efforts had the exact opposite effect: proving an effective force existed. At last, there a tiniest glimmer of hope for Dolhinov’s Jews.
And yet it was too late for most, almost all, of them.
Early morning, April 28 1942, there’s something of wrongness in the air, a tension among the police the gradual arrival of more soldiers until the ghetto is surrounded. It is the Second Action. The previous month’s events are repeated. screams, chases, sounds of shots. Hiding places discovered, grenades thrown into them or Jews brought out and shot down. This time, the Germans and their allies are determined to do the job thoroughly. They stay at it for two full days and part of a third. By the end, there are survivors again but not many, except for the expert workers, given a short stay of execution by the Germans themselves.
Among the Dolhinov Jews, only one nuclear family survived, my cousins, and that was due to Shlomo Rosin. How many unsung heroes there were whose deeds deserve being sung.
Rosin had built a hiding place first for his brother-in-law who the Germans had sentenced to death, then for the family’s use in the First Action. When it was left behind with their home as they moved to the ghetto, he made a new hiding place. They began by expanding the windowless potato cellar. But they decided that wouldn’t suffice and so they closed it up and started over again.
This time they built in a less obvious hiding place for a hiding place: just inside the front door. A trapdoor was cut from a piece of flooring which blended in with the rest. A handle was fit onto its bottom so it could easily be opened, closed, and fit into place.
And so when the Germans came again, he told thirteen relatives, including my six-year-old cousin Leon, not to worry about him but to get into the shelter quickly. He then arranged a large pile of potatoes over the trap door–thus making impossible his own escape through it. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll manage.” Those were his last words to them.
Rosin ran to the synagogue to hide. But unlike his cleverly constructed hiding place, that was all too obvious. The German searchers found him there with little difficulty. Leaping out a window in a vain effort to escape, Rosin was shot and killed. His family survived only because he sacrificed his life for them.
Blessedly not knowing this at the time, the Rosins and Rubins huddled in the hole. They heard soldiers enter searching for them as footsteps went right over their heads. The first thing the soldiers checked was the storage room, their original hiding place. If they hadn’t changed plans everyone would have died. But the Germans never guessed that to reach that storage cellar they’d stepped right over the real hideout.
Hour after hour the families sat for three days, daring to talk only in whispers. Since they were close to the river, water constantly seeped in and they sat in puddles. There was no food or drink. Through small air holes Shlomo had cut, they could, however, see a bit outside. The sound of shooting was heard. So were their Polish neighbors telling the Germans that the families must be hiding somewhere in the house. Townspeople were pointing out the shelters of other Jews, ensuring their doom and the informants becoming heir to all their property. One of the families wiped out in this way was in the very next house, the Grosbeins, distant relatives of mine on my grandmother’s side.
That first night, Shlomo’s sister, Bilke, lost confidence in their sanctuary’s safety and decided to join another group elsewhere. Shlomo’s daughter, Rachel, decided to join her. After a while in that hiding place, Rachel missed her family and returned. A few hours later, the other place was discovered and all there, including Bilke, were killed.
Frustrated in not being able to find the Rosin-Rubin hideout, the Germans returned to the house and focused attention on the outbuildings stretching behind it. They set the woodshed afire, certain this was where their quarry hid and believing the flames would finish them off.
Smoke drifted into the breathing holes. At first the fugitives thought the house was burning down around them. Uncle Shlomki stood up, hunching under the low ceiling, and said he was going to leave. But Gavriel Rubin stopped him, calmly asserting: “It is better to be burned alive than caught by the Germans.” Shlomki sat down again. They awaited better times.
The Katzovitz family also had a new hiding place. Since the Schreibams already lived in the area that became the ghetto, they remained in their home and could use the safe haven they’d built during the First Action. It was cleverly placed below a balcony and each of the nine people entering had to jump down to get inside.
But this was a place with only enough room for the women and children. The men took the biggest risk, ready if necessary to sacrifice themselves. They began by hiding in woodpiles but if they had a chance they agreed to get out the hidden gate door leading outside the ghetto which they’d noted earlier for use in just such a situation.
Down into the hideout jumped Feiga Shriebam; her sister Gita Gitlitz, the Katzovitz’s sister-in-law, and her two sons; Mrs. Katzovitz and her daughters. The hidden women, too, heard their neighbors guiding the Germans to other hiding places; the screams and futile pleas of captured Jews; followed by gunshots, grenade explosions, and deadly silence. Frozen with fear, they did not even dare to whisper. There were more screams and more gunshots, and more and more.
At one point, Mrs. Katzovitz whispered to her children: “If we are to be caught we should not cry my daughters, we should not beg them for our lives since it does not help anyway, we should not expect mercy from them. We should die with our self respect and dignity knowing who we are.”
Then she stopped cold. There were the noises downstairs of police entering the house. The hidden ones strained ears to follow their progress. The footsteps moved away toward the other side of the house. Then came the sound of furniture being moved. Neighbors and police were looting everything. They didn’t call the Germans lest the soldiers interrupt their enrichment and order them to return to the proper work of murder, at least before profit. Ultimately, cupidity, not love, saved their lives.
The next morning the Germans visited each house and discovered some of the hiding places they had missed, rechecking homes not fully inspected by the less-dedicated police. But the neighbors weren’t satisfied. Some Jews obviously still lived. Townspeople, accompanied by Germans, came into the house and one was overheard to say, “It looks suspicious.” They began knocking on the walls and one of them said, “Get an ax.”
Just then, when all seemed lost, they began arguing among themselves. A soldier snarled, “What are you doing here, brigade number four?”
The reply came: “This is our territory. We are brigade five. Get out of here!”
As the first group left, a bugle blast sounded, calling all the Germans to assemble. All the soldiers left. The women had survived the second day.
Yet they knew it was only a matter of time before the Germans returned and caught them. Leaving was imperative. They climbed out of their hiding place and headed for the gate door but found it locked. Though they didn’t know it until much later, that lock saved their lives. The door had been discovered and their husbands, sons, and fathers who’d gone through it the previous day had been shot down: the Katzovitz’s stepfather, Yakov Foreman; and little Aron and Nachman and Shimon Gitlitz; and Feiga’s husband Chiam, and son Chilik Shreibman. And so had been the Katzovitz’s grandmother Feige Gitlitzther and their aunt Haya, Sarah and her son Gadalya Eidelman. “There was,” as one survivor noted drily, “no time to mourn.”
Meanwhile, Chana Brunstein, who had such good fortune during the First Action, decided not to try her luck too far this time. She joined a group of eight, including her brother, who decided to break out of the ghetto.
They made a run for it in the morning of the first day, before the Germans got too organized. Police guards fired at them but only one was lightly wounded. Panting for air, they raced several blocks away from the ghetto and broke into an abandoned house—it belonged to Yerachmiel Shapiro, who many of them had visited in better days—on May 3 Street and hid in the basement. The Germans weren’t looking for Jews outside the ghetto and the fugitives could catch their breath there.
But after a few hours, they reluctantly but inevitably had to go on. They checked to make sure no one was watching—the townspeople were as dangerous to them as the SS—and ran once again.
And here is an image that I cannot get out of my mind, a small thing that took a heartbeat of time. But Chana Brunstein noticed and remembered it for more than a half-century despite it having come in her life’s most terrifying moment. As they ran across Boimalach boulevard, they spotted an eight-year-old girl all alone who they knew to be from the Sandler family. They did not stop or divert their path. No one can blame them and no one can doubt that she did not live more than a few hours after that. This frozen image of a little girl, lost, confused, bereft, dazed, is a fitting image for the horror of those days.
The group’s next stop was the attic of a house that belonged to the uncle of one of them. And finally when night came, they ran out of town altogether, to the granary of a farmer in the nearby village of Palant. The man had been a regular customer in the Katzovitz store and they knew they could trust him. They were right, which is why this story is being told and not gone forever, as are those of three thousand other children of Dolhinov.
He hid them in the potato storeroom under his home—oh, staff of life, indeed was that vegetable for them. And as an extra kindness during the daytime he took them upstairs to sleep by the oven. They would stay there until the massacre was over.
Like other menfolk, Esfira Dimenshein’s father put sand on the floor to hide the entrance of the hole where his wife, son, and daughter was hidden. They spent two days inside and when they could breathe no more came out. Fortunately for them, they lasted long enough. Their father was dead and so were all their other relatives including their grandparents, relatives, and friends.
And then it was over, in every sense of the word. But I have not told one word of what is most important. It is easy to dwell on the stories of survival, because those people live and have stories to tell. It is comforting to hear the stories of survival, because they imply that if one had been there an individual survival could have been secured through smartness and luck. Yet for every one such name, there are a dozen who did not live.
Here is one small incident that took one minute and yet reveals the inescapable paradoxes and inevitable choices of Dolhinov Jews. Sigalchik’s sister had saved him from jail but could not save herself in the second massacre. Pulled out of a hiding place by the soldiers, she begged them to let her live, saying she had young children.
They asked, “If you really have young children, where are they?” She knew that to answer that mocking question was unthinkable, and futile even so. She remained silent. She died. At least, in that last moment she knew they were still safe and might live. Such were the sole consolations available.
Esfira Dimenshtein had the experience closest to that of most Dolhinov Jews that day:
“They led us to a sandlot near the cemetery saying that we are going to work. There were Germans and [local] policemen. They made us stand in two rows and started shooting. I wasn’t killed because I faint[ed]. I woke up…it was dark and it was very hard to breathe. I looked around and didn’t see anyone, just dead bodies. There was a dead man lying on me. And I started creeping to the forest.”
She hid for two days under haystacks, thinking that this dome of dried animal fodder would be her deathbed. On the evening of the second day, she decided to make for the forest. There she met some other escapees who told her that her brother and mother had been saved by the same Polish policeman whod rescued them in the First Action and now helped them to hide.
Sixteen-year-old Esther Dokszycky was hiding with her mother, Rivke, and sister, Roshkle, along with her aunt and her own two daughters, while her father and uncle hid behind a woodpile. The women heard the Polish family next door talking about where the Dokszycky’s might be and then went off to bring the Germans. Rivke, said, “They’ll find us.” They decided to split up in the hope that at least a few would survive.
Rivke took off her wedding ring—the only thing of any value they had left–and put it on her daughter’s finger. Had she a premonition of who would live and who would die in the next few minutes?
Then they raced out. Rivke and Roshke turned left and were shot; the aunt, her two daughters, and Esther turned right and made it to a neighbor’s house where they hid in the attic. They heard people saying, “They have to be somewhere around here.” And then the top of a ladder appeared, followed by German soldiers who dragged them out.
Esther’s aunt cried out, “My husband is a specialist and you’re not supposed to kill us!” Her effort worked.
“So why did you hide?” replied a soldier. “I’ll take you to the SS commander.”
When the officer had examined their papers and found out she was telling the truth, he asked her the same question as did his subordinate.
“I didn’t want to be killed,” she replied in fluent German.
The officer looked down at his clipboard. Yes, he said, your father and uncle are flax merchants and you are listed as having two daughters. But who, pointing at Esther, is this one?
“This is also the daughter of a specialist,” she explained.
For a moment they stood there, the black-uniformed SS officer and his armed men face-to-face with a small Jewish woman and three young girls. Finally he decided, “Take them to the other specialists,” ordered the officer.
“And what,” the soldier asked of Esther, “should I do with this one?
“Let the little shit live,” he answered. “I will kill her next time.” The man led them off. A few moments later, as they were passing a house, some other soldiers brought out their cousin, a little boy of ten years old. He was an orphan, his father having been killed and his mother being the one who had committed suicide after the first action.
Quickly, the aunt said that he was also one of her children.
“Oh no, you don’t,” said one of the soldiers. “You watch!” And they shot him down before their eyes.
Finally they arrived at one of the three houses given over to the surviving Jews. There Esther found her father, who had blood all over his face. He had been caught, too. “They gave me a good beating because they said I wasn’t supposed to hide,” he explained.
“Father,” she said to him, “I think that mother and Roshkle are dead.” He already knew. “At least you’re alive,” he said, and they broke down in tears.
For 24 hours they stayed in that house, without food. They left only to bury the dead. In one wagon, Esther saw another aunt with her husband and four children; and in a second wagon was the bullet-riddled body of her six-foot-tall cousin, a college student, so big he needed a whole wagon for himself.
As I watch her describe that scene on the video screen at Yad ve-Shem, the Jerusalem museum of the Shoah, I think her story of the Second Action is over. But it isn’t
At the very end, as the interviewer is winding things up and getting ready to turn off the camera, she adds one more thing. It is the most horrible of all the horrible things in her memory, so incongruous with the luxurious Florida home in the background of the scene. Yet having told the rest of the story, she finds herself able to unburden the last terrible secret. She speaks.
There she is, back in the run-down house with the other experts, all shaken by their experiences of the day. A teen-aged boy has just come in the door, perhaps the last living Jew in the streets of town. He sees Esther and comes up to her, hesitating, but unable to restrain himself. The boy has something he must get off his chest.
“I was forced to bury the dead,” he tells her. “Among them was your sister, Roshke. She was still barely alive and her eyes were open. But I couldn’t bury her alive, so I asked one of the Polish police to shoot her. He refused.
“And then I asked one of the SS men. `Sure,’ he said.” He lifts up his machinegun and lets off a burst into her body. And then the boy picks her up, as gently as he can, and throws her into the mass grave, as respectfully as he can.
“I knew it was your sister,” he explained to Esther, “because I recognized her beautiful blue eyes.” And then he walks away.
Except for about 150 to 300 “experts” and their families, all those Jews who the Germans, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Poles caught were put to death immediately, mostly shot down where they stood; some torn apart by grenades in their hiding places.
On the morning the massacre began, young Arieh Rubin was a stone’s throw outside Dolhinov, seeking food for his family. He saw Yehuda Ginsberg of the Judenrat telling people that the Germans were calling for an assembly. And he also saw the unsual number of German soldiers. Wisely, Arieh ran in the opposite direction, into the woods. Wandering there, he met up with a group of other young Jews who’d escaped and were seeking the partisans. But he could not leave his family like that and did not join them.
Instead, he walked about a mile and a half to the house of a peasant who he’d often visited with his father who’d bought and sold in the countryside. Arieh hid and hesitated. Then around midnight he knocked on the door. The man came, and asked—a wise person did not open a door lightly in those times—“Who is it?”
“It’s Arieh, the son of Gabriel.”
The peasant was startled. It was the last thing he expected. Guests were sitting around the table in his parlor drinking and talking, friends but not necessarily men who could be counted on to keep a secret. No one could see him talk to a Jew. Merely to open the door could mean the death of not only of himself but of his whole family.
Who can see into the soul of a man? He made his decision, opened the door a crack, and said, “Go out by the place where the garbage is thrown and I will help you.” Later, when all slept within, the man brought him a loaf of bread and jug of milk, promising to return the next day. Arieh slept on the ground. The same thing happened again when the earth had rotated once on its axis, the second day of the massacre.
Then, the peasant sent his wife to see what was happening in the town. She was too scared to enter but reported that the German soldiers had left. When Arieh heard that news he himself returned. On the outskirts he saw a Polish policeman too busy stealing clothes from homes in the ghetto to notice him.
Hard it was to enter that town of the slain. Everywhere, he saw the fallen where they lay like, as another survivor put it, strewn leaves fallen in autumn. Arieh entered a house and saw a dead woman lying on the bed, another on the floor. He rushed home, what courage that took, not due to fear of the Germans but fear of what he might—was almost certain—to find there. He tried the front door. But it would not open. He went around to the back door, but that, too, was stuck.
And then in that moment of despair, the end of the world, he saw his mother and his father and his little brother, who had come out of their place of hiding and were now hiding in the backyard. They embraced, took what they could in a few moments, and fled. Telling me of that in the living room of his apartment in Ramat Gan, two-thirds of a century and a million worlds away, Arieh broke down and wept.
There was one being more with them on leaving than there had been when they’d gone into the shelter three days earlier. For when the Rubins and Rosins came out they saw the shattered hiding place of their next-door neighbors, the Grosbeins. Once again, the two sides of my family came together. The townspeople had led the Germans to the Grosbein’s hiding place and when the Jews there didn’t come out, they threw a hand-grenade in. They didn’t bother to go inside themselves. Nobody, the Germans concluded, could have lived through that explosion, and there were more people to kill before their working day ended.
But there was one survivor, six-year-old Haim Grosbein. He had been sitting in a corner and the blast, which tore off the legs of a cousin sitting next to him, had left him unhurt physically. And so they took him into their family.
Are these terrible events hard to talk about for those who experienced them? Almost seventy years later, I heard the story again from Victor Rubin, Arieh’s brother, at his dinner table in his home in Israel. Also at the table was his 40-something-year-old daughter. By that time, Haim Grosbein had grown up and old, was a pensioner with many grandchildren of his own. Victor’s daughter turned to her father and said with a calm equanimity I found astonishing, “Oh, I knew you were close to Haim Grosbein’s family but I never knew why before.”
There were about 50 people left alive who came out of their shelters that night. The police were too drunk, confident, or sated with loot to care. The survivors broke down the ghetto fence and escaped toward the forest to the east. Someone started shooting but it was very dark and nobody was hit. They didn’t stop until they found the partisans.
At that moment, Chana Brunstein and her seven companions were still in the farmer’s potato room and they asked him, too, to go into Dolhinov. He knew their families and came to report that not one of them had survived.
She and her brother, also, had to see for themselves. Like the peasant woman, she put a wide scarf over her hair and let it droop over her face as a disguise. Some townspeople saw her as a ghost, “Eta Z’idovka!” they said in Polish, “She’s a Jew!” Going to the hospital, they found the seemingly indestructible Dr. Kotler and his wife who had survived in hiding and were packing medical supplies to take. He hid everything of use they couldn’t carry with the hospital’s Byelorussian maintenance man, Leonid Andreyovitch. “I’m going to the forest,” he told them. “Come with me.” And they did, and joined the Partisans.
Not all the Dolhinov Jews went into the forest that day, however, and the tale of Jewish Dolhinov had not quite come to an end. About 150, like Esther and her father, were still kept alive by the Germans, the craftsmen and their families who had special skills particularly useful for the German war effort. There were only enough Jews left from a community that once lived in 400 houses, and then 40 in the ghetto, to fill just three. If anyone might be preserved by the Nazis, if any shred of pragmatism remained among them, then that tiny group would be kept working hard at their unpaid, productive labor. But there wasn’t and they wouldn’t
Among the last Jews in Dolhinov was my distant cousin on my father’s side, Mendel Chafetz, and the neighbors he had saved as his supposed family, my great aunt Haya Doba Rubin and her children, Haim, 12, and Jacob, 10. We know what happened from the official SS report.
“On May 10 we conducted a Jewish action in Volozhin. The Jews there were not as well prepared as in Dolginov.” But by now, with hardly any Jews left to murder, the SS had a new task on its hands: fighting the Red Army partisans. A detachment attacked a German air force communications’ outpost near Dolhinov. And so they had to be still in that area. The SS unit failed to catch the partisans in an operation conducted on the night of May 20-21. But since they were in Dolhinov again, they decided to make good use of their presence to take care of unfinished business:
“On the next day we conducted our third action in Dolhinov. With it the Jewish question in Dolhinov was decided once and for all.”
Mrs. Katzovitz and a number of the older women had remained behind to witness the last days of Jewish Dolhinov. They watched Christian townspeople scrutinizing the ghetto, lighting bonfires at night to reveal any Jews trying to escape. One night they heard a loud noise and rumors spread that it was a bone-grinding machine which would turn into dust those few Jews who were soon to be killed there.
Realizing that the end, and their end, was at hand on May 10, Mrs. Katzovitz, her youngest daughter Sara, along with Gita Gitlitz and her sons Israel and Yehezkel finally made their escape. They urged another woman to go with them but she refused, saying: “Where am I to go? Who is to say how old I should be when I die? People could die in their forties, they don’t have to wait for their sixties.” Despite everything that happened, she and her husband still thought that their son being the sole qualified mechanic in the area would protect them.
As she headed toward the woods, the next to last thing Gita heard was the father telling the arriving German soldiers about his son’s great skill. The last thing she heard was gunshots.
It was very dark. Gita and her sons, Israel and Yehezkel ran one way; Mrs. Katzovitz and Sara the other. The latter were soon in the Jewish cemetery where they met Zlata Dokshitzi and her daughter Haya. Together they hid in the fields for weeks, eating raw barley, moving ahead of the peasant mowers. One night, they were hiding behind bushes in the forest when they saw shadows moving, not Germans but other Jews from Dolhinov, including Gita and her two sons.
What had happened to her when she went left rather than right, or was it right rather than left? Gita and her sons had hidden in the fields, too. Starving, they were finally ready to give up and so desperate that they started back to Dolhinov to face their fate. Fortunately, on their way they ran into Gita’s nephew who persuaded them to choose life, to return to the forest and not give up.
Finally, the whole group met up with the Red Army partisans and lived in the woods for the remaining two and a half years of war. When the Nazis and their allies were finally destroyed, they immigrated to Israel in 1948. Israel Gitlitz joined the army of the country that bore his name and was killed in the War of Independence in 1949. Only 18 years old, he knew what he was fighting for, and what he was fighting against.
And what of the others who were the last Jews of Dolhinov before May 21? If these people were not broken by this point, it was a miracle. Having lost his wife and other daughter, Esther’s father had no desire to live but he wanted to save his remaining daughter. “Go to Cybulski,” he told Esther’s older cousin, Peretz. He was a very poor Polish peasant who her father had befriended, letting the man grow crops on some land that he had leased for flax but didn’t need.
Peretz snuck out of town and asked Cybulski to come see his father, who the Germans let meet peasants as part of his work for them. Cybulski took some flax with him as an excuse.
“Look,” said Esther’s father to Cybulski when they met at last, “I don’t have too much left but whatever I have is yours. I want you to take my daughter and my nephew.”
Cybulski was a very brave man and agreed. That very night, he returned to the ghetto. Esther said good-bye to her father and he promised to come to her when he could. He claimed that if he ran away his three brothers would be killed. But both of them knew this was only an excuse of a man who’d already made up his mind.
Then he turned to Cybulski and said, “Mr. Cybulski, I want you to be a father to my daughter.”
“You should come yourself and do that,” said Cybulski, himself almost in tears.
“I’ll try but, just in case, we live in uncertain times.”
And so they left her father and Dolhinov to go back to Cybulski’s village. The next day, a third Jew arrived, a man in his mid-40s whose wife and two daughters were dead but who had made a different choice from Esther’s father. Cybulski took him in also.
The farmer made a hole in the dirt floor of his cow’s corral; added a wooden door with breathing holes; spread straw, and then—well there was the cow as a decoy. But he said to his wife, “I’m not going to put Esther in there. We will have to do something for her to stay in the house.”
The rest of the summer of 1942, she spent in the attic, amidst the hay. And when the weather became cold, she hid in the space between the big oven and the wall. The two men stayed in the barn. If all seemed safe enough, at night all three sat with the family. On warm nights Esther would go out, like a ghost, amidst the high grain in the field.
Each day, Cybulski carried flax into Dolhinov and Esther’s father would give him some money and clothing. Then came May 21. The shouting and the shooting was heard well outside town. Cybulski couldn’t face going. He knew what he would find. His wife went instead and returned to report that everyone was dead.
“That night,” Esther later recalled, “I was in the attic and I wanted to commit suicide.” She felt as if, “The three of us are the only Jews alive.” But she had no idea to commit suicide. Finally, Cybulski came to her and said, “I love you like my own daughter We will try to hide you and we will see what happens. And if they find you we will all be dead any way.”
They hid there for 18 months, until November 1943. Then, one day an escaped Russian prisoner of war came to the house and begged for something to eat. Cybulski wasn’t home but his wife and daughter were and they gave him some bread and milk. But they didn’t let him know about the three Jews they were hiding. And he left
.He was captured and interrogated by the Germans and told them about who had helped him. The police commander from Dolhinov came to Cybulski’s house and Esther recognized his voice from the attic. She was fully prepared to die. But suddenly, all was quiet. After some hours, Cybulski came upstairs and told her that he had been away when the police came but they had taken his wife and daughter to jail, and they might be shot.
Esther told the other two Jews that they would have to leave so as not to put the family into any more danger and persuaded them to do so.
Cybulski explained how to find partisans. First, he said, you go to the big river, the Vilaya and cross it.
But none of us know how to swim, they answered.
There is one place you can cross the river on foot, explained Cybulski. You will see a big oak tree. Cross there.
Off they went. But they came to a crossroad and Cybulski had forgotten to tell them about that. Once again, Esther had to choose between turning left or right, a matter of life and death. Suddenly, she knew what to do. On the right she could see auto tracks and the droppings of horses and cows. To the left, there was nothing. Where others don’t go, that is the way to the partisans.
Two miles down the path they came to the big tree. And there sat a shepherd boy. He was scared by the sudden appearance of three extremely strange strangers. He got up to run away.
Don’t run, little boy, said Esther in her most soothing voice. I want to talk with you.
“You’re a spy!” he said accusingly.
No, she said, I’m not a spy. I’m Jewish and I’m running away from the Germans. Tell me where the partisans are.
“I’m not telling you anything. You’re a German spy.”
So Esther gave him the greatest treasure she had: a small piece of soap. His eyes widened and his mouth soon opened, too. “Go two miles to the village of Lesnicki,” he told her, “and you’ll find partisans.”
And there indeed were the partisans. They took the trio to their commander.
“You want me to believe,” he said, “that you hid 18 months in a peasant’s house only a quarter-mile from Dolhinov and you’re still alive? It’s ridiculous.”
“Look at us,” they told him. And he looked at the three ragged, exhausted Jews, a little girl, a teenage boy, and a haggard man. “We didn’t look human,” Rachel later said, and they certainly hadn’t been treated as such for a long time. They did indeed look like people who had hidden 18 months in a hole under the cloven hooves of a cow and in an attic filled with hay.
Then he smiled, “Such nice partisans you’ve brought here,” he laughingly told the sentry who’d escorted them, “Such fighters!” Turning to the fugitives, he added, “You can work in the kitchen.”
He turned to leave and walked away. At that moment, she heard a voice behind here say, “You’re Rivka’s daughter?” It was Avram Freedman of Dolhinov, who she’d known since childhood, who was now aide to the commander of the People’s Avenger’s partisan brigade.
And they were home again. Though they were hardly safe or in a real home for a very long time to come.