The town was first mentioned in 1065. Braslaw has a castle that dates from sometime near the beginning of the second millennium (between approximately 1050-1200). There are also the ruins of a church built during the twelfth century. Brawslaw was part of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth prior to its passing to Russia in 1795. It was returned to Poland in 1921, but fell to the Soviet Union in 1939. It was taken by Germany during the Second World War but was retaken Soviet Union in 1945. It was part of the Soviet Union until Belarus gained its independence in 1991. In 1948 Braslaw had a population in excess of 2000 people. Population in 1995: 10,700 (Source: Columbia-Lippincott Gazeteer) The history of Braslaw, its ethnic, geographic and communal development, lies hidden in the mists of the distant past. From the few documents in our possession we learn that Braslaw is already mentioned as far back as the eleventh century almost 300 years prior to the founding of Vilna. It belonged to the Potocki duchy which was situated on the Russo-Polish-Lithuanian border and was called Braczislaw, after the reigning duke. If one examines the geographic-topographic location of the town and its vicinity one cannot but conclude that Braslaw was originally built as a border town. Its checkered topography comprised of mud pans, swamps, forests and hills, lakes and streams, was ideally suited to defense, rendering it a veritable bulwark against attacks from hostile, semi-organized military bands. The river Dwina, a major waterway which skirts Braslaw, indirectly helped to boost the economic growth of the town. With the unification of Poland and Lithuania at the beginning of the fifteenth century the so-called Jagella period Braslaw became part of the Vilna province, and was considered one of its five administrative districts. Incidentally, all official documents of that time refer to Braslaw as "Braslaw of Lithuania" as opposed to "Braclaw near Uman," a city in the Ukraine. Due to the incessant feuds between the Russian and Polish sovereigns, the town was frequently ravaged by wars, raids and fire. Particularly harsh, though fortunately short-lived, was the Tartar invasion; their rulers, who hoisted their flag with its crescent moon on top of the mountain in the very heart of town, exacted heavy tributes from the local inhabitants. In the seventeenth century Braslaw was almost totally destroyed by floods. So vast was the damage that Warsaw central government by special ordinance exempted the town from taxes for a period of four years. The town shared the vicissitudes of its rulers, the noble Sapieha family, through whose feuds with rival nobles over several centuries it kept changing hands. The mountain which as mentioned earlier was situated in the center of town served not only as a military fortress and prison but also as a Christian religious stronghold, complete with nunnery and church. It was protected by a regular military garrison stationed there. Legends proliferated about the secrets which it jealously guarded in its bowels, about treasures and precious articles buried in it, though in places unknown. A special order issued by King Stanislaw-August affirms the strategic importance of Braslaw and its contribution to the royal crown. This monarch chose as his emblem a triangular sundial inset with an eye the "watchful eye" as a sign of God's vigilance over the town. There are no documents on the later development of Braslaw as most of them, according to one historian, were burnt or destroyed during the Russo-Napoleonic war. Jews of Braslaw From historic evidence in our possession we note that Jews are reputed to have lived in Braslaw and environs as far back as the sixteenth century. Thus a report on a population census held in 1559 cites the names of several Jewish families among them Byk, Krawiec and Nemirowicz. The Jews engaged mostly in commerce but were also tradesmen and artisans such as tailors, cobblers, innkeepers and so on. They were organized into communities, some of the larger independent ones like Braslaw, Druja and Vidz, managing the smaller semi-independent ones like Opsa, Slobodka, Drujsk and others. Braslaw Scattered on yellowish-brown sand, on the bank of the large lake Drywiata to the west and the smaller lake Nowiata to the north-east, lies, ranged round the mountain the house of the shtetl Braslaw. The main street, once know as "die groisse gass" ("the big street"), after World War I as Pisudski Street, and with the Soviet entry in 1939 as Lenin Street, spans the entire length of the shtetl. The street is straight and long. To the east of it, on a hillock, stands dumb, petrified, an old windmill, whose giant wooden wings creak in the autumn nights and cold winds nestle in the crevices of its barred windows. From here the street runs on until it reaches a small wooden bridge beneath which the two lakes meet. It is a fairly wide street, cobblestone and flaked by wooden sidewalks which shake at every step. The houses are built mostly of heavy weather-beaten logs. Some, old and decrepit, are half-sunk into the ground, while others stand erect on stone foundations arrogantly flaunting their brightly painted doors and windows. Squeezed in between the houses is a medley of shops of all shapes and sizes, with an odd assortment of wares: foodstuffs, saddles, whips, and other paraphernalia which cater to the needs of the peasants in the outlying villages. On one side where the street intersects "Third of May" street, built on a Hill, is a red brick building the Roman Catholic Church its crosses like pointing fingers pierce the sky. Opposite, on the edge of the Drywiata, stands demurely the white-blue Greek Orthodox Church with its five-onion shaped domes. Each day the bells of the two churches ring out, their sounds commingling, as they summon the faithful to prayer. A short distance away, sloping as though into a valley, is the synagogue courtyard where stand as if abashed, three synagogues known as Minyanim or houses of prayer; the Old Minyan, the New Minyan, and the Mithnaggid synagogue-cum house of study. In the synagogue courtyard is also situated the fire brigade building. Spacious, built of wood, it housed the fire-fighting equipment: enormous bright red, wooden barrels on wheels, handpumps, brass pipes, hatchets, firemen's poles, and all sorts of implements. The firemen, all volunteers, are almost all Jews, some middle-aged broad shouldered, sturdy, most of them sporting beards. When a fire breaks out, to the sound of bell and bugle, the firemen come pouring forth, and in their wake, from every street and alley, the townsfolk, old and young, armed with buckets, hatchets, picks, or whatever they can lay their hands on, and with much din and excitement help to span the horses hurriedly commissioned for this purpose, to the wagons on which the pumps and barrels full of water are loaded. Often when the fire is fierce and the pumps cannot pump fast enough, the people form a live chain, filling buckets from the lake and passing them from hand to hand up to the burning house, and so helping to quench the flames. The firemen add color and excitement to the shtetl of a happier note too, for they constitute the practically all-Jewish brass band. On public holidays or on festive occasions the musicians, dressed in their uniforms, bedecked with silver decorations, march along the main street proudly displaying their shiny brass instruments. Here goes Yerachmiel Milutin with his huge booming tuba. Next to him, marching in step to the music, struts the bearded Ezer Eidelson, the teacher with his trombone. Then come Yankel Maron and Ishike Lewin with the horns, followed by a host of others, all led by the bandleader Telrraszewski. Over the entire show presides Beinesz Milutin, serious, dedicated, as though bent on the most grave rather than joyous event. The theatre hall occupies part of the fire-brigade building. Here the shtetl is entertained by its local dramatic society which stages plays and a variety of performances. The hall also serves as a venue for meetings and gatherings. The synagogue courtyard, of modest proportions, humped sandy, comes to life on warm evenings in the month of Av. The youth of the shtetl flock to it to enjoy the balmy air. Girls stroll past in pairs or clusters, to provoke the boys no doubt, who are quick to take up the challenge. They pelt the girls with burrs and revel in their piercing shrieks of feigned fear. On Purim, the synagogue courtyard is agog. Scores of boys of all ages band away with keys stuffed with gunpowder against the synagogue walls. The deafening noise from their homemade ammunition aimed at the historical villain Haman the Hitler of ancient Persia resounds all around. However, the gaiety and excitement reach fever pitch on the day of a wedding. The Chuppah (wedding canopy) is set up on a flat, clean-swept spot. The shtetl turns out to a man and all gather round the excited families of the young pair. All along the way where the bridge and groom are to pass, the windows are lit up with candles which, as though rejoicing in the general festivity, flicker and dance through the misty panes. The street is strewn with fresh yellow and. The groom, escorted by his close relatives is led to the canopy, accompanied by musicians playing the traditional "dobrydzien" (a joyous melody of welcome). Then the bridge is brought and she, her mother or female relatives, walk round the groom seven times. The ceremony over, the groom breaks the class underfoot a reminder of the destruction of Jerusalem and joyful cries of Mazel Tov erupt from all mouths. The bridge and groom walk hand in hand through the excited crowd, past the poor lined up on either side with buckets of water, into which the groom and guests drop coins. With lit candles in their hands, all escort the newly-weds to the wedding feast. There is yet another synagogue, the so-called Sandy Minyan, but this is situated further along on the way to the mountain, and like the first two Minyanim, belongs to the Chassidic community. The Jewish community, not unlike their former overlords, was not without its disputes and bickering. D.S. Szerman, the correspondent mentioned earlier, describes in Hamelitz of 1994-1885 the sharp differences between the Chassidim and Mitnagdim the denunciations to the authorities which he regarded as tantamount to blasphemy in the eyes of God. At one time things went so far that the synagogue was closed down, many were arrested, and the town Rabbi and his family suffered want because some of the congregants sided against him. Mr. Szerman makes an impassioned appeal to the Chassidim to stop persecuting the Mitnagdim and to rebuild their synagogue with had burnt down the year before. Further along, the street continues until it reaches the mill owned by the Jewish miller Byk. Here too is the power station which supplies the shtetl with electricity. The street winds like a narrow ribbon between the mountain and the lake, whose waters lap at the sandy banks, often reaching up to the houses. The lake Drywiata, is vast and deep and sports a variety of fish which are caught in it all the year round. With the onset of frost in early December, when the lake is covered with a thin sheet of transparent blue ice, before the snow has had time to blanket it, one can glimpse far down into its dark depths breathtaking sights o magic worlds. On such nights fisherman by the score set out, followed by lovers and idlers whom boredom drives out of doors, to witness a most spectacular extraordinary mode of fishing. Armed with long heavy mallets, iron picks and hooks, the fishermen, with lanterns in their hands, scatter along the tinkling ice and light it up, keeping the lanterns close to the ice. The fish, lured by the light, swim up towards it. The fishermen raise their mallets and bring them down with a heavy blow on the ice. A deafening roar reverberates all along its surface. The fish stand still, stunned as though hypnotized, and the fishermen then chop out apertures in the thin ice and with their hooks haul out the fish. The two lakes which surround and converge on the shtetl have always been a wellspring of fun and pleasure for the youth. On moonlit summer nights, the merry laughter and song of young boys and girls who frolicked on its enchanting waters, would ring out until dawn. And in the days, especially weekends, they'd bathe and splash in these magnificent natural swimming pools. Each year, the lakes would claim a victim. Then the entire shtetl would be plunged into deep mourning until the body was recovered and brought to burial. To the west, the main street joins the dirt road which leads to Vilna. The road runs along noblemen's estates and villages scattered between pine forests and fields. To the north of the main street, several streets and lanes terminate in the narrow-gauge railway station which adjoins the Chridtian suburb, the "gumnes." The train cuts through a sand road on its way to Dubene, a small Jewish yishuv about eighteen kilometers from Braslaw. Its population, numbering less then one hundred families, engaged mainly in agriculture. Each family owned its own plot where it kept horses, cows, sheep, geese and chickens. A vegetable garden, fruit trees and flowers complete the picture. There was the usual sprinkling of shops, the ubiquitous artisans, here especially itinerant tailors who eked out a living from the nearby peasants. In 1927, a cooperative dairy was established in Dubene for the manufacture of butter and Dutch cheese. Dubene, like most adjacent Jewish yishuvim, was closely linked with Braslaw through commerce, administrative affairs and ties of blood. Not far from Dubene is Okmienic, a village with only one Jewish family. Villages of this kind were not uncommon in the Braslaw district. Another such village was Zaracz, but there were many more. The narrow-gauge railway branches off to Druja on the one side, and to Dukszt on the other. There it links up with the wide-gauge railway which runs from Warsaw to Latvia. Several side streets intersect the shtetl in its length and breadth until they reach the marketplace, the post office, and the printing works owned by the brothers Magat. This press, founded in the thirties, employs local Jewish youth, and publishes a weekly featuring local and regional news. One street proceeds beyond the Jewish cemetery to the new lush and plush suburb where the Polish intelligentsia government officials and others live. Here too are situated the government institutions, the civil court and the like. This suburb borders on the Karpowicz forest, a recreational spot renowned for its scenic walks. In view of its proximity to the Polish suburb, however, it was shunned by the Jews. Their favorite haunt was the Dubkes forest at the opposite end of the shtetl. There Jews from all walks of life would flock, stroll, and enjoy its beauty and bracing air. This forest, being dense and vast, was an excellent hideout. Little wonder that it served as a central partisan camp during the Nazi occupation. Another road leads from Braslaw to Jajsi, a Jewish village. Its inhabitants, a few score families in all, engaged in agriculture and particularly in the processing of goat's milk cheese. The Marketplace The marketplace, situated on a large empty plain, was surrounded by stalls and houses though, strangely enough and unlike so many other shtetlach, not by shops, most of these, as already mentioned, being interspersed between the houses throughout the shtetl. The marketplace merely served a center for the disposal of agricultural produce brought in by the neighboring peasants who would descend on the shtetl twice weekly, on Wednesdays and Fridays. They would arrive in their heavily laden wagons, outspan their horses, hitch to em to the wagons, and begin to display their produce: potatoes, fruit, vegetables, hay and oats, chicken, hides, and hog's hair, and firewood. Jewish small dealers, middlemen, or simply loiterers would mill among the wagons, often seen chewing on a straw. The marketplace was especially lively in autumn when men and women in their hundreds would mingle with the merchants, buying up provisions for the long winter ahead. The star attraction was the so-called "zadarmenikes" ("givers-away"). Their cries of "It's a give-away, give-away" earned them this nickname. Amid the hubbub, the creaking of wheels, the shouts and curses of drunks, the hoarse cracked voice of the crier, usually an emaciated young man, would rise. Poised high on his wagon, he'd proclaim and extol his cheap almost worthless merchandise: combs, scarves, penknives, and other knickknacks. Crowds, mostly peasants, would flock, jostle and push all eager for bargains. Some peasants who lived on the Latvian border- redrawn after the rise of Poland went in for smuggling, particularly of sugar, since the Polish government exported it at a far more competitive price than sold locally. The peasants used to hide a few sacks of sugar in a wagon loaded with hay and sell it to the local shopkeepers. Trade and Commerce A number of Braslaw Jews earned their livelihood by transporting goods. The nearest city, Vilna, was situated approximately 180 kms away, and the two gauge railway system rendered transportation by train prohibitive. Hence it was more economical and convenient to dispatch the goods direct from seller to manufacturer by other means. Winter was particularly conducive to the transportation of goods. Once the snow had set and the roads frozen hard, loaded sleights would carry fish and meat, poultry, eggs, flax, hides, and other produce to the big city. On their return trip, they would bring back manufactured goods such as textiles, footwear, sugar, salt, soap, various kinds of oils and hardware. In summer, the horse-drawn sleigh was replaced with trucks, owned by the Milutin and Bielak families. An important means of livelihood was the fresh fruit trade. Many families would spend all summer and part of autumn watching over the fruit, guarding it, and picking the fruits of their labors a rich harvest of apples, pears and many others and see to their dispatch and sale, both in the shtetl and outside business centers. Many Jews were also tradesmen, some working as independent artisans and some as journeymen. All occupations were well-represented; there were tailors, cobblers, tanners, milliners, watchmakers, carpenters, locksmiths, tinsmiths, ropemakers, bakers and so on. But the mainstay of the town was the fishing industry, headed by the chief lessee, Szne'er Aron. Braslaw's lakes and rivers were a source of income to many. Entire families engaged in buying and reselling, transporting and packing the fish, which the fishermen caught in their nets. The main fishing season was winter when the lakes were coated with a thick layer of ice. The fishermen would then lower their news into the apertures, the so called "windows" which they would chop out on the ice, and a few days later haul out the nets full of sparkling silvery fish. On the whole, the economic position of the Jewish population was precarious. No Jew could hold a government post, the small dealers and shopkeepers, with few exceptions, barely eked out a living. The artisans and unskilled workers were no better off. To supplement their income, some kept a cow, a goat, a few chickens, or geese. Many cultivated small vegetable gardens next to their homes. Z. Szmuszkowicz vividly depicts the abject poverty and privation of many Jewish families, who often had to seek aid from the community or appeal to the mercy of kindhearted charitable Jews. Here we wish to mention the inestimable help and support to the poor of the Gmilut Hesed, a communal fund which granted interest-free loans to the needy, thereby virtually saving entire families from starvation and want. Here too we should mention the honorary communal workers and leaders like Baruch Fiszer, for instance, who did much more for the community as a whole and was among the first to help people in need. Szne'er Aron, the fishing lessee, was another philanthropist. Every Friday he would freely distribute fish to the poor for the Sabbath, as well as other material aid. One of the founders of the "Yavneh" Hebrew school, he was its pillar. He personally supported the teachers, in addition to caring for the innumerable needs of the community. Charity and mutual help seemed to be a way of life. Minor philanthropic institutions, often consisting of one or two people, would spring up in a time of crisis and rush to the aid of someone in distress, be it a poor bride who needed a trousseau or refreshments for the wedding feast; or at Passover Maot Hitim a fund for supplying the poor with Passover needs. And throughout they would do all in their power to observe the traditional and laudable injunction of Matan BaSether (secret almsgiving). Earlier we mentioned fishing as one of the main occupations of the Jewish population. We now wish to add something about the fishermen themselves. The majority of these fishermen belonged to the old offshoot of the Greek-Orthodox church, the "Starowiery" (i.e. members of the old faith) as they were called. They were tall, well-built, powerful men with bushy beards who would come once a year from and wide, and flock to Braslaw to celebrate the festival "Grorrnica" (Candlemas. Celebrated on February 2nd, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, and the presentation of Christ in the Temple: the day on which the church candles are blessed). This festival, with its pageantry and carnival air, almost invariably coincided with Purim. These men would come sporting magnificent horses, beautifully decorated sleighs, with jingling bells and festooned with colored ribbons. They would spill out and stroll about the streets, the women dressed in all their finery, bedecked with Jewels. While strolling thus, suddenly without warning, a young man would drive up furiously, grab a maiden and drive off with her to an unknown destination. A few days later he'd send matchmakers to her parents. Naturally this was merely a stunt, all agreed upon beforehand, and not a crime. This folk custom may well derive from the biblical story of the young Benjaminites who too used to snatch maidens in the vineyards after their entire tribe had been practically wiped out. In the afternoons they would hold horse races on the snow-blanketed lakes, to the delight of the entire shtetl. On the whole, relations between the Braslaw Jews and the peasants were normal, even friendly. More than once the peasants withstood the barrage of anti-Semitic propaganda of hostile groups which emerged especially after the rise of the "Endek" chauvinist party (N.D. = Narodowa Bemokracya National Democracy) which raised its head soon after Hitler came to power. When the Germans subsequently entered Braslaw, it became clear that many members of the party were indeed Nazi agents. During World War II as well, there were outbreaks of Jew hatred and dangerous moods presageful of pogroms among the peasants. The Jews proud and firm warded off pogroms, looting, and pillaging with great courage, which is still spoken of to this day. During the final days of the war when Braslaw was without an official government for a while, peasants and marauders from the neighborhood assembled near Gmina (local administration building), ready to attack the Jews, rob and kill them. The Jews got wind of this and immediately organized a self-defense. Szmuel Josef Milutin, on horseback, charged among the incited peasants, and brandishing a revolver in one hand and a sword in the other, dispersed and routed the rabble. Young Yerachmiel-Mendel Meirson fell in this skirmish and Abraham Lubowicz received a leg wound. Upon the entry of the Nazis into Braslaw during World War II, their first victim was Chayim Milutin, son of Szmuel Josef. However, there were also episodes which spoke of the deep friendship and loyalty of many peasants to their local Jews. One such episode concerns the Kagan family from the village Zahorie incidentally, the only Jewish family in the village who leased the lake Ukla from the local noblemen. During World War I Polish marauders and virulent Jew-baiters attacked them and sought to burn down their homes and pillage their belongings. The village peasants quickly rallied and armed with axes and pitchforks, drove off the attackers. Religious and Cultural Life Of the four synagogues in the shtetl, one housed a Yeshiva numbering 60 students, some from the adjacent yishuvim. Since there were no Jewish schools in these yishuvim, the children attended Polish government schools in the morning and Cheder and Talmud Torah in the afternoon. The more affluent sent their children to Braslaw, to its Folkshul, Hebrew school Yavneh, or Yeshiva. The Yeshiva students were fed from a communal kitchen specially erected for this purpose. Some of them were so-called "day boarders." Each day of the week one family would take one student for a day's board. Naturally this was a makeshift measure, in view of the dire straits in which the teaching institution found themselves, since they received no government subsidy. Many graduates of the Braslaw Yeshiva continued their studies in the Yeshivot of Volozyn, Myr, Vilna, and Nowogrudek, some even graduating as Rabbis. Despite constant financial problems, the Yeshiva made a notable contribution to the cultural life of the shtetl. The shtetl employed two Rabbis who served the people with selfless devotion. The Mitnaggid Rabbi, Reb Hirszl Valin tall, broad-shouldered, still in his prime, with a sparse black beard streaked with grey. An outstanding preacher, he also officiated as cantor during the Holy Days. In the thirties he and his family emigrated to Latvia where he took up the position of Rabbi in one of its towns. The second Rabbi, Reb Abba Zahorie, old, frail, retiring, was the religious leader of the Chassidic community. His mild blue eyes expressed a childlike innocence, as though in wonder at God's words. It is told that when the Jews were led to the pits, he went before them, wrapped in his prayer shawl and comforted them, saying that man must accept God's will with love, all the while murmuring the verse: "from the depths I have called thee." Apart from the Yeshiva, the homeless Yiddish Folkshul too conducted classes in the synagogue albeit in the women's section. This naturally often evoked quarrels between the Folkshul and Yeshiva students on account of the permissive dress of the former. In the thirties a beautiful commodious Folkshul building, with an adjoining nursery school, was erected in the courtyard of the Jewish Bank. Funds were provided by the CYSO (Central Yiddish School Organization) and the Bank Director, Levi Yitschak Wainsztein. Apart from his financial share in the venture, he also sponsored children poor homes to enable them to further their studies in Vilna. The Folkshul was the matrix of the local intelligentsia. Its graduates who took up studies at higher institutions of learning in Vilna, would return as teachers, professional, technicians, assholes, thus enriching the cultural values and quality of life of the youth. Around the Folkshul cultural circles sprang up, among them a dramatic society, which staged plays and vaudevilles. The moving spirits and gifted artists in this society were Widrewicz, chief bookkeeper of the Jewish Bank, and the tailor Szaie Dejcz. The latter, in addition to being a fine artist, introduced much life and creativity into a number of circles. In her memoirs, the late Perl Fiszer-Charmac traces the important role played by the Yiddish Folkshul and the cultural circles. She speaks with love tinged with awe and admiration for the Folkshul, its dedicated teachers and of all who spared no effort to maintain this worth institution. Likewise, Marasza Rothenberg-Rajchel recalls with love and reverence the multi-faceted activities of the school and its circles. Thanks to the initiative of a number of townspeople and communal workers, a Hebrew school "Yavneh" was established in the last few years before World War Ii. Among its renowned teachers was Rafael Jakov Munic, a fine scholar and "Lover of Zion." In the twenties he already organized the youth to study Hebrew, the Bible, and mobilized young boys to prepare them for Aliyah to Eretz Israel. Young boys went to work on the land, engaged in fishing and pother pursuits. Some of them later emigrated to Eretz Israel among them Mosze Valin, the Rabbi's son who joined the Kibbutz Rarnat Hakovesh and later founded the Li-La-Lo theatre. He also served as impresario to several famous singers and dancers. In the shtetl, political parties and groupings began to mushroom. There was the Zionist movement made up of the Chalutz group, General Zionists, left and rightwing Poale Zion. Some of the youth, the Chalutzim, emigrated to Eretz Israel. There was also the Revisionist organization, the Betar and Brit Hachayal, headed by Advocate Geliszkowski and Zusman Lubowicz. The adherents of the Yiddish Folkshul were called "folkwisten" and their views were close to those of the "Burd," a strong and influential force among local youth and Jewish worker circles. A staunch supporter of the Folkshul was Lieber Cepelewicz, a colorful personality. His home was a regular venue for discussions and a meeting place of the loyal youth. Braslaw, though lacking in industrial enterprise and a concomitant proletariat, nevertheless featured a Communist party, but its influence on the youth appears to have been negligible. Despite political differences, there were no signs of any animosity in these youth circles. All that has been told so far is but a fragment of the history, way of life, and vicissitudes of Braslaw over hundreds of years up to the grim period, the Satanic German0-Nazi rule, which ended in the total destruction of many Jewish communities, towns, and shtetlach, villages, and yishuvim, by Hitler's henchmen. In 1939, Poland was cut in half. The Red Army advancing from the east and the Nazi hordes from the west split Poland and divided it amongst themselves, thus partitioning it for the fourth time. The two armies stood facing each other across the river Bug. The Jewish population of Poland numbering over three million was likewise split and cut off from one another. However, with the Soviet decision to free the western parts of White Russia and the Ukraine, the dread of falling under the iron heel of the Nazis was dispelled for a time. The Jews welcomed the Red Army with great joy, with flowers, bread and salt. Chayim Band of Braslaw tells how the draper Aharon Zeif brought out and distributed rolls of red cloth among all who wanted to make flags. The Jews under Soviet rule knew nothing about the condition of their fellow Jews under German occupation. Only here and there faint echoes of the deplorable situation of the Jews under Nazi rule would reach them from the other side of the Bug. Trickles of refugees would bring sad tidings of the happenings on the western side of the river. The life of the Jews under Soviet rule was, from a material angel, fairly tolerable, but their cultural, communal, and religious life had altered dramatically. One by one the various Yiddish institutions were closed down: schools both religious and secular and the study of Yiddish was forbidden. Not to speak of the Yeshiva and the Talmud Torah. Some families were exiled deep into Siberia and the Urals. Ironically, even former avowed communists were not spared, since the Soviets did not trust them. And so, for close to two years, Polish Jewry lived in the shadow of suspense and barely contained fear, until the advent of that fateful, bloody era, which plunged the world into blood and tears, suffering and death. The fearful tragedy that struck the Jewish people and Polish Jewry in particular the total obliteration of hundreds of Jewish communities, large and small, the physical extermination of millions something unprecedented not only in the annals of Jewish but also world history the systematic genocide perpetrated by the Nazi beast, will never be blotted out nor forgotten. The holocaust which engulfed the Jewish people must be set down and attested by those who miraculously escaped it, today's living witnesses of all that took place. Sholem Asch, the great Yiddish writer, introduces as motto to his book Kiddush Hashem an extract from an older book: We are ashamed to tell what the Cossacks have done with us so as not to dishonor the name Man who was created in God's image. How can we keep silent, fail to speak, to describe what the Nazis did with and to us? The torture, the suffering, the murders, the humiliations, the gas ovens, the valleys of death where our dear ones were butchered fathers, mothers, children, brothers and sisters? In the ghettoes the story went around about the famous Jewish historian Simon Dubnov, who when led to his death turned to the Jews next to him and commanded them, "Write down! Record!" It is therefore with sacred awe that we carry out this last will and testament to write down, to record the suffering of our holy martyrs as an eternal memorial for generations to come. The Jews of Braslaw and environs lived under Russian/ Soviet rule for close to two years. Then, at dawn on Sunday, the 22nd June 1941, the Germans broke the Hitler-Stalin pact, and Nazi hordes began to pour into the Russian zone. The coming pages describe the early days of the outbreak of this war, the entry of the Germans into Braslaw, the evil decrees and measures introduced by the Nazis, the gruesome events of that period: the ghettoes, the hunger, the torture until the dreadful end, the total liquidation of the Jews of Braslaw and its neighboring shtetlach and yishuvim; and finally the resistance, at first sporadic, but later by organized partisans among whom were many of our fellow countrymen. In his memoirs, Chayim Band of Braslaw describes the first days of the war: On the morning of June 21, we heard about the German invasion. The same day a mass meeting was held on the shore of the lake. The Soviet party and government officials gave us their solemn assurance that the enemy would be driven off and the people had therefore nothing to fear. The next morning, Soviet military units tanks and artillery were indeed seen passing through Braslaw in the direction of the front, but in the evening the picture had changed and the retreat towards Russia began. Military and government officials and their families made haste to leave the shtetls. This had a terrible effect on the Jewish population. Plunged into despair and uncertainty, they waited to see what would happen next. Many of the youth left their homes, some on foot or by whatever means they could muster, and headed for the former Polish-Russian border. Some Jews consoled themselves and others with the thought that they knew the Germans from World War I days, that they were a civilized and cultured people and one could learn to live with them, as the German axiom goes: "Leben and leben lassen" (Live and let live). Reality however, was to prove otherwise. . . . Meanwhile, the German army continued its advance eastwards, destroying in its wake the demoralized and disintegrated Soviet army. Several days after the outbreak of the war, the Germans entered Braslaw and conquered a large portion of the surrounding district. The non-Jewish inhabitants welcomed them with bread and salt, thereby manifesting their joy at having been liberated from the Russian yoke. The Poles elected a special council to facilitate collaboration with the Germans. Among its members noted for their anti-Semitic activity were the Chief of Police, Jasinski, the mayor, Kowalski, the Prison Superintendent, Szliachczik, a Volksdeutsch (local German) and notorious sadist, as also the teacher Pawlik and his wife, both local Germans and others. Moshe Milutin tells that the Germans entered Braslaw on Thursday, a few days after the outbreak of war between Russia and Germany. First came several intelligence men on motorcycles. They looked around, stayed a while and then rode away. During the night, massive quantities of military equipment, tanks, artillery and other armaments began to stream into Braslaw. This procession merely passed through, leaving behind a small military contingent which, with the help of the non-Jewish inhabitants, especially the Poles, began to rule the shtetl with an iron hand, introducing draconian laws. The relations of the Nazi rulers with the Jews were governed by previously determined laws. So, for instance, a document entitled "The Brown Map" contains the following instructions to the German authorities in the occupied eastern zones: 1. All Jews were to be registered and forced to wear the yellow badge. 2. Directions about the movement of Jews. 3. Ghettoes were to be established 4. Transfer to all Jews from villages and shtetlach to ghettoes. 5. Establishment of Judenraten and a Jewish police force. 6. Confiscation of all Jewish property. 7. Prohibiting Jews from practicing their occupations. 8. Introduction of forced labor. The next day, Friday, the Germans rounded up all the Jews of the shtetl on the horse-market men separately and women and children separately and drove them at gunpoint to the swamp in the Dubkes forest on the bank of the lake Drywiata. On the way, the first victims fell Szlomo Zilber, the ritual slaughterer, and Chayim Milutin shot by the Germans on the pretext of trying to escape. Heartrending is the description of Yerachmiel Milutin, Chayim's uncle: On my hands I carried my nephew to the cemetery and brought him to burial. When I undressed him I counted eighteen bullet holes on his body I cleansed him, kissed him twice and took leave of him forever. It is told that when Chayim fell, pierced by bullets, he still managed to cry out, "Jews avenge our bloods!" The Jews were kept in the swamp all night without food or water. As Yerachmiel Milutin, Fiege-Tsippe Toker-Bielak and others relate, they were distraught, being certain that this was the end. However, on the morrow, with daybreak, they were told to go home. The Germans, it seems, merely wanted to intimidate them. Dejected, afflicted, with sobbing children in their arms, they finally dragged themselves to their homes only to find that these had been looted. Doors and windows stood wide open, and what the robbers could not take with them they threw about or smashed. Their non-Jewish neighbors, with the consent of the Germans, had carried out a pogrom on their deserted homes. These round-ups seemed to be a favorite German pastime, designed not only to frighten the Jews but also to humiliate them. Niuta Kantor describes a day which is indelibly printed on her mind. The Jews of the shtetl had again been driven to the shore of the lake, and the Poles, especially teachers, government officials and the youth the "cream of the youth" gathered dressed in their Sunday best and looked on with glee at how the Germans humiliated the Jews. They were hoping, it seems, to witness their liquidation. "One can just imagine," writes Niuta, "what we looked like in their eyes, if our death the death of men, women and children was to them nothing but a bit of fun." Slawa Pincow in her testimony tells that the Polish intelligentsia of Jod petitioned the local German authorities for the right to liquidate "their" Jews. And so began the cruel decrees and persecutions. To facilitate their rule the Germans ordered that a Judenrat be elected. It consisted of ten men: Itzchak Mindel acted as chairman, Chayim Munic as secretary, and its members were Gerszon Klioner, Mazeh, Rafael Fiszer, Fridman, Szeinkman, Leib Valin and others. The chairman of the Opsa Judenrat was David Lewin and in Jod there were two members, Peretz Skolnik and Elijahu Razin. The first decrees introduced were as follows: -- All Jews had to wear the yellow badge on both front and back. -- They were forbidden to use the sidewalk but had to walk in the middle of the street. -- All relations with the non-Jewish population were to be severed. -- Jews were forbidden to visit a cinema, theatre or similar places of entertainment. -- In front of every Jewish house a signboard bearing the word "Jude" had to be hung. At a specially appointed spot, bread was distributed to the Jews 175 grams per head per day. Under the terms of a subsequent order, the Jews had to hand over their household animals to the Germans and collect fur coats, felt boots and other warm clothing for the German army. In addition, the Germans from time to time imposed heavy collective fines on them and confiscated all their copper and other metalware. One day, Soviet planes bombed units of the German army. A non-Jew informed the police that he saw Jews signaling to the Soviet pilots directing them to the German positions. The Germans thereupon arrested Beilke Dejcz, Yankel Musin a young man from Druja as well as Chayim Burt, a young boy. After strenuous efforts by the Judenrat, Burt was set free, but Beilke Dejcz and Yankel Musin were tortured and then hanged. Denunciations were becoming the order of the day. A Polish overseer over some Jewish forced laborers employed at the railway station in stripping bark off logs and loading them onto train coaches, denounced them on the pretext of malingering. Thirteen Jews were shot. The Nazis did not lack Polish collaborators and partners-in-crime from every walk of life: from Jasinksi, Chief of the Braslaw Police, to the local non-Jewish population. When Jasinski was finally brought to trial at the instigation of Niuta Kantor who accused him of murdering innocent people, the true face of these Polish collaborators came to light.Anatoljusz Zawacki, a witness at Jasinski's trial testified: The people were brought to the station about eleven of them. They were locked in a coach. At nightfall they were let out, driven a short distance away, and shot. The children of my family saw all of this. The next day, I came across a German cleaning his rifle and he said to me, "I am cleaning the weapon not for a parade. I shot some Jews yesterday." Zelig Ulman, his wife and little daughter too met their death through the denunciation of a non-Jew. It is rumored that Zelig had been tortured before he died. His son escaped by a miracle as he was not at home at the time. The German seized Aharon-Zelig Singalowski, the old ritual slaughterer, put him on a military motorcycle driven by a policeman who raced with him through the streets of the shtetl. When he was finally released he was as white as a sheet. A short while afterwards, he suffered a heart attack and died the next day. Jewish life was cheap, and the Jews lived in the shadow of constant fear. Baruch Fiszer, a prominent and respected Braslaw Jew, had been put to work in a German bakery. One day, faint with hunger, he took a piece of bread. The German overseer caught him red-handed, whipped out his revolver to shoot him, but finally relented, yielding to his pleas to spare his life. In Jod, the Germans gathered a group of eminent Jews, forced them to their knees and ordered them to pluck the grass from between the cobblestones. Others were made to dance in the middle of the street. One night, twenty Jews were dragged to the police station and brutally beaten for no rhyme or reason. Each received 25 lashes. In August, for the first year of the Nazi occupation, the peasants from the villages around Jod carried out a pogrom in the shtetl. The Jews fled for their lives and the peasants had a field day looting their homes. The Jews of Braslaw groaned under the inhuman decrees the heavy levies imposes on them by the Nazis. Desperate, they assembled in the synagogue where Chaim Szolem Bor made an impassioned appeal, concluding with the traditional Hebrew words Tsdaka Tatsil Mimavet (Charity saves from death). The men and women thereupon took off their ornaments, jewelry, watchers and other valuables and handed them over to the Germans. In Dubene, all agricultural produce and household animals cows, goats, chickens, etc. were confiscated. Seventy-year-old Zechariah Maron, most distressed by all this, dared to resist. A tall strapping German caught him by his sparse grey beard and began to shake him from side to side. The proud old Jew, being short of stature, took a leap and spat full square into the German's face. On July 19, 1942 in order to intimidate the Jews the Germans, aided by local collaborators, surrounded the Jewish village of Dubene and murdered four Jews. They then assembled the rest in the synagogues men separately and women and children separately ordered the men to crawl on all fours, then drove a number of them to the cemetery, where they tortured and shot them. When the Jews were later brought to burial they were unrecognizable, so brutally had they been beaten. In all, twenty Jews were killed that day. Motke Rosenberg of Opsa tells how as a child of ten, he saw the Nazis force Jews to crawl and eat grass on the marketplace, all the while beating and kicking them. Mosze-Aaron, the butcher, was tied to a horse and dragged through the shtetl. Herzl Sznaider the shoemaker was tortured to death on the pretext of hiding skins. The Jews of Jod were the first of the Braslaw district to be murdered. It was the winter of December 1941 the month of the festival of Chanukah, the festival of lights and miracles. The Jews lit the third candle and as they uttered the blessing, the hope that a miracle would descend on the entire House of Israel as in days of old and on them too, flickered in each breast. But no miracle came. . . . A few days earlier they had been ordered to get ready for transfer to the Szarkaiszcina ghetto. They packed prepared food and other necessities but on December 19 they were taken to the ready-dug pits, ordered to undress and shot. The same day and at the same time as the Jews of Jod, the Jews of Kislowszczyzna and its neighboring small yishuvim were killed all in all over 500 Jews. Some managed to escape prior to the massacre and hid with peasants in nearby villages. The Jews were "on the move" a mass exodus but not to life or freedom. The Jews of Jajsi were brought to the Braslaw ghetto, the Jews of Slobodka to the ghettoes of Vidz and Braslaw. The Opsa Jews were transported to the Vidz ghetto. Some managed to bribe the local police to allow them into the Braslaw ghetto where conditions were said to be more tolerable, and because they wanted to be with their relatives. The Jews of Budene were driven from pillar to post from Braslaw to Vidz, from there to Swiencian and to the labor camps of Miligan, Wewie, Zezmer, Vilna, Oleina and Kaiserwald until Auschwitz and Ponar. All "actions" (round-ups of Jews in the ghettoes in order to send them to labor or death-camps.) expulsions, murders and denigrations were carried out with typical German punctiliousness and swiftness, after secret planning. Peasants with wagons or sledges, depending on the time of the year, would be mobilized from nearby villages to load the Jews and transport them to far-away places. The police and gendarmes were not mere onlookers but active and zealous participants in the expulsions carried out by the Gestapo. They would urge the Jews with blows and vituperations, forcibly drive them from their homes at a moment's notice so that they would have no time to take along food and clothing for the road. The Lithuanians in particular "excelled" with their bestiality. But the local population too was not found wanting. The non-Jews stood around, watching, waiting to pounce on the Jewish possessions left behind by their owners. Mire Lotz-Szneider in her memories of that time, writes: Sarah-Disel, wife of Szlomo Lewin, was a dressmaker in Dubene who employed a young apprentice, the daughter of the peasant Dragun from the village Raugiszki. The night before the expulsion of the Jews, Dragun came to the Lewin family and offered to hide Sarah-Disel and her two little girls Chayele and Szeina Rivka so that only Szlomo would meanwhile enter the ghetto. Naturally this offer was accepted with great joy. Dragun's sleigh was loaded to capacity. With heavy hearts the mother and children bade farewell to the husband and father and rode away in the hope of finding a temporary haven until the evil days would soon pass. On the way, as soon as they entered the forest, the peasant killed the mother and her two little girls, and rode off with their belongings. On Passover eve, early in April 1942, the Gestapo summoned the Braslaw Judenrat and ordered that all Jews living in the side streets vacate their homes and move into the houses on Pilsudski Street (then called Lenin Street). The Germans could not possibly have chosen a more ideal site for a ghetto. On the one side the street bordered on the mountain and on the other, from the west, was cut off by the lake, the waters reaching up to the houses. All intersecting streets or side streets leading off the main street were cordoned off with barbed wire. And so the Braslaw ghetto came into being. It was divided into two parts: on the one side, up to the bridge, was the so-called "useful ghetto", peopled by the able-bodied fit for work, and on the other, the "dead ghetto," inhabited by the old, the sick and the weak who, unable to work, were earmarked as the first victims. Abraham Bielak testifies: Our house was situated in the "useless ghetto" which meant that we were the first candidates for death, and yet we wanted to stay there and live in our own home. My father went to seek advice from Rafael Fiszer (Folke Lanes), a member of the Judenrat, only to be told, "We are all sentenced to death!" The ghetto was crowded to overflowing, several families living in each house. Medical services were not available and medicine was at a premium. People died of typhus, pneumonia, filth and hunger. This was indeed the beginning of the end the physical annihilation. The non-Jews knew only too well how to exploit the situation. They acquired everything, whatever the Jews still kept clothing, furniture, etc. for a song, all the while saying, "In any case you'll be killed, so what do you need these things for?" Death was a frequent visitor in the ghetto. Some lost heart and passively surrendered to cruel fate; others tried to fight despair and sought ways and means of saving their lives; some begin to prepare shelters, hiding places, and bunkers. Rumors reached and soon spread through the ghetto about the liquidation of the Jews of Latvia and Lithuania two countries bordering on the Braslaw district and where many of their relatives and friends lived and of the killings of the Jews from the nearby shtetlach. The Germans spared no wile in deceiving the Jews. They repeatedly lulled the fears of the Judenrat with assurance that the Jews of Braslaw, being law-abiding and hard-working, had nothing to fear. On Tuesday, the day before the massacre, the Germans ordered the Judenrat to select one hundred young girls to be sent to Slobodka to clean military barracks. Next day, however, they were returned, led straight to the pits, and murdered with the rest. Mothers tried to save their little children. They would dress them in their holiday best, steal out of the ghetto, and leave them at the doors of Christian homes. In a day or two the children would be sent back to the ghetto. Such was the fate of Beilke Bank-Gens' little girl. The night before the massacre, massive police fortifications surrounded the ghetto soldiers and police, especially Latvians and Lithuanians. Also, trucks, so called "gas vans" for suffocating the inmates with exhaust fumes, were brought in. On Wednesday, the 18th day of Sivan, the year 5702, equal to June 3, 1942, the ghetto awoke to the sounds of heavy shooting and frightful screams, drunken oaths, the wailing of the hunted, beaten and wounded, the smashing of doors and windows, brute orders to get out of the house quick curses and blows. The killers rummaged and sniffed into every nook and corner to try and ferret out a Jew hiding somewhere. Liuba Byk testifies: It was the eve of the massacre. Police were brought into the shtetl from all around and the entire ghetto was surrounded by guards. Our house was the first in the ghetto. At about two in the morning, we heard the sound of heavy footsteps, a door wrench open. Two policemen rushed in, started to beat us, and flung us down the stairs. They did not let me take my three-year-old daughter with me, but brutally murdered her in her sleep. I was driven out of the house at the end of a rifle butt. I saw them kill my sister Rosa and her two little girls right next to the barbed wire of the cordoned off ghetto, near our house. They drove us to the Folkshul. On the way, they shot Mendel the locksmith. I spotted my uncle Rachmiel and followed him. Suddenly he drew me and a few other members of our family into a cellar beneath Rosin's flour store. It was pitch dark inside. I could only feel the huddled bodies crouched against the stone walls. Now and then we heard footsteps above us, followed by shots. Each time a child began to cry, it was silenced forever. . . . We had no food or water. We had to relieve ourselves on the spot. The stench alone was enough to suffocate anyone. We lay in this living grave for three or four days. Again we heard footsteps. We'd been discovered. We heard shouts: "Verfluchte, stinkende Juden, Heraus!" Once in the fresh air, I lost consciousness. Someone gave me a drink of water. Sarah Katz tells how, looking through the window, she saw a Nazi dragging a little girl the infant daughter of Liuba Weiss by the legs, her tiny head knocking against the cobblestones. The ghetto was milling with people. Anyone who sought to flee, whether in the direction of the lake or into a side street, bumped against a policeman or gendarme and was at once shot. Some went mad. Heartrending scenes took place in the shelters and bunkers. Mothers had to smother their infants so that they crying would not betray those hidden there. Itzchak Mindel, the chairman of the Judenrat, frantic, ran to the Gestapo to plead for his people, but for his pains he and his family were the first to be shot. According to another version, Mindel, on hearing of the impending massacre, took his wife and children and went to the Gestapo. As chairman of the Judenrat, he told them, he ought to be shot first. They thereupon took him at his word and murdered him and his family on the spot. The Jews of the shtetl were taken to the ready-dug pits, forced to undress, and were shot. The massacre continued for three days. Then the Germans began mopping up operations. They searched, hunted, and dragged the Jews out of their hiding places. To help them in their fiendish task they enlisted a non-Jew who was fluent in Yiddish, and also forced some of the victims who had been caught hiding to walk through the ghetto, escorted by police, and exhort the Jews to come out of the bunkers, solemnly promising them in the name of the Germans, that there would be no more shootings. Some, naοve enough to believe them, came out and when all had been assembled in the Folkshul building, they were led to the pits and shot. Peasants from the neighboring district later told that the earth above the pits heaved for three days on end, and the blood kept oozing out, so that the Germans had to dispatch peasants with horse-wagons to cart more soil to cover the pits. Some, no longer able to stand idly by and watch the agony and suffering, bravely resisted the murderers, knowing full well the fate in store for them. Thus, Mosze-Boruch Bank, while wrestling with a gendarme, bit his finger clean off. For this he was meted out the age-old punishment: he was tied to the tail of a horse and driven through the streets until he gave up his soul. Neftl Zalman-Jankel's (Fiszer) and Avremke Fiszer too grappled with the fiends, but what could people armed only with fists do against murderers with rifles and revolvers. Abraszke Ulman took on three policemen single-handedly, killed two, but was fatally shot by the third. In a letter from the front, Peretz Lewin describes his encounter with some young Jewish fugitives from Braslaw at the Minsk railway station: I spoke with a young fellow of nineteen, but his voice was like that of an old man . . . "Very few remained alive after the first massacre," he said, "except for those who managed to hide, who escaped to the forest earlier on and joined the partisans, or who were kept hidden by peasants in cow sheds and all manner of hideouts, these peasants virtually risking their own lives and the loves of their families by harboring Jews." On the eve of Rosh Hashana 1942, the Germans organized the so-called "second ghetto" in Braslaw, or the "Opsa ghetto" as it was called, because it consisted of Jews brought in from Opsa. This ghetto too was not long-lived. Two days before Purim, 12 days in Adar, 5702 (March 19 1942), the Germans once again surrounded it, drove the Jews to the pits, and murdered them. "The liquidation of the second ghetto, however, did not go off quite so smoothly for the Nazis. Many Jews put up a brave fight. Barricading themselves in one of the houses, with what little ammunition they had, they fought fiercely, answering fire with fire. Here the heroic feats of Leiser Bielak of Braslaw and Melech Munic of Opsa are worth mentioning. In his book, Destruction of Jewish Vilna: Khurbn Vilne (p.160), Sh. Kaczerginski recounts the testimony of Sasze Tempelman, former teacher of the Braslaw Folkshul: Two months after the first massacre of the Braslaw ghetto (on the 3rd, 4th and 5th of June 1942), the Germans brought fifty Jews from Opsa (20 kms from Braslaw) and created what was known as the "second ghetto." This ghetto lasted seven months. In March, 1943 the Germans slaughtered the remaining Jews. Some put up a stand. The resistance took place in a house occupied by ten Jews. They barricaded themselves and held off the German police with rifle fire. When their ammunition gave out, the enemy charged the house, but as the first German entered, he was shot dead. One of the Jews donned his uniform, took his rifle, went outside and opened fire on the Germans. The house was then blown up with hand grenades. Moshe Kahanovich too, in his book, La Lucha de Los Guerrilleros Judios en La Europa Oriental (The War of the Jewish Partisans in Eastern Europe), published in Buenos Aires in 1956, vol. 1 p.497, describes the last stand of the Jews of the second ghetto in Braslaw. A third version is by those who survived the massacre. Thus, it is told that Melech Munic of Opsa, a tailor employed in a workshop along with several other artisans, mobilized some Jews and got ready to put up a stand. They prepared home-made ammunition, consisting of iron implements and buckets of unslaked lime. When the first German entered the house, they threw the lime over him. Melech Munic then shot him, dressed up in his uniform, and went outside and began shooting at the Germans. In the end, he was fatally shot. The Jews inside the house kept up the shooting until the last bullet, and were then pelted with hand grenades. Lieser Bielak, it is told, fought back during the liquidation of the second ghetto; he shot a German and two policemen, escaped and managed to hide for a while, until in the end, he was handed over to the Germans by a peasant for a few kilos of salt. After the war and the liberation of the Braslaw district, Mosze Milutin, a young partisan, and Abraham Bielak, avenged his death and shot the vile traitor. Motke (Max) Fiszer, Baruch's son from Braslaw, who relates his experiences under the German occupation, concludes his testimony with the question: Why did the Jews not resist? I have no answer to this question, neither for myself nor for anyone else, but I believe that it could perhaps be explained as follows: in the first place, the Germans wore us down through suffering and torture, stripped us of all we had, threatening us daily with death. And then there is the human will to live, with its eternal hope for a miracle, that things must take a turn for the better. Human ties too concern for children, parents, the sick, the weak more than once quelled the will to fight, as did the belief that this was a punishment from heaven. And how dare man pit himself against God's will? Max Fiszer's words are but partly true, for despite his aforementioned reasons, there were incidents of resistance and heroism, and not all had lost the will to fight. True, mass uprisings were few, but everywhere -- whether in the camps or the ghettoes -- there were incidents of spontaneous and sporadic resistance, not to speak of the vast partisan movement which spread and grew and played so crucial a role in the victory over the Nazi beast. It should, however, be mentioned that the most weighty reason of all for the Jews' passivity was the devilish cunning of the enemy designed to weaken their resistance. The oppressors kept telling them, via the Judenrat, that nothing would happen to them, that they were a much-needed work force, and so on. And here it is difficult to entirely absolve the leaders of the Jewish community, the Judenraten, who indiscriminately swallowed the Nazi lies. This clearly emerges from the testimony of Yerachmiel Milutin. He tells how a resistance group comprising ninety-five able-bodied young men, most of them former Polish soldiers, was organized in Braslaw. Its initiators were Gerszon Klioner, a member of the Judenrat, and Alexi Wasilewski, son of the Greek-Orthodox priest, employed in the Braslaw town council and trusted by the Germans. Yerachmiel was the go-between and Wasilewski even showed him the cachet of arms and ammunition which lay waiting to be handed over to the fighters. However, immediately after the chairman of the Judenerat got wind of this, he fought it tooth and nail, and in order to avoid civil strife, the plan was abandoned. Wasilewski also exerted himself on behalf of Russian war prisoners. He supplied them with forged documents to enable them to obtain work as local residents. Finally, he was denounced by a traitor, arrested by the Germans and shot in Glubok. We wish to end the chapter on life in the ghetto under the Nazi heel, with its privations and hunger, denigrations and death, with the words of Mira Lotz. Her fate as a child was the fate of so many children like herself, as also of adults, who shared with her the burden of those dark days. "I witnessed," she writes, "the death of thousands of people, my family among them. I envied the dead, and yet I alone remained alive. . ." A special chapter in the road of suffering may be found in the innumerable accounts and testimonies of many of our countrymen. For months on end they wandered, driven from pillar to post, here by day and there by night, seeking a haven for themselves and their children, where they would be safe from the claws of the Nazi beast. Moving in its simplicity is the story of Sarah Katz-Mowszenson. Hounded and driven, in rain, snow and frost, with an infant in her arms, often without food or water, she wandered together with her cousin Benjamin who later became her husband from place to place, at times with nowhere to lay down her ailing and aching body. Days, weeks, months, years, amidst suffering and tribulation, hunger and loneliness, filthy and louse-ridden, uncertain of the morrow, they finally lived to see that happy day the defeat and demise of the Nazi beast and the day of reckoning when they could avenge themselves on the local hooligans and murderers who helped the Gestapo kill Jews and wipe out entire families and communities. It was not always easy to track down these collaborators, for after the war they assumed the mien of pure, innocent lambs. One example was the bloodthirsty butcher and murderer of Jews, Foikste. But thanks to Sarah and her husband, Benjamin, he was caught and received his just desserts. Such instances of whitewashing were legion, as may be seen from the trial of the war criminal and murderer Jasinkski, mentioned earlier, and on which we wish to elaborate somewhat. From the account of Niuta Kantor, we learn of the ways and means whereby these former murderers tried to whitewash themselves. We have in our possession official documents and reports of court proceedings of Jasinkski's trial, which took place in Olsztin and Kiszalin at Niuta's insistence. These documents not only reveal Jasinki's brutal attitude toward the Jews of Braslaw and its environs, but also bring to light the various stratagems, threats, and bribery that some Poles resorted to in an attempt to defend this murderer. Another ugly feature of the trial was the patent bias of the Polish law courts which tried to shift the blame onto the innocent victims. The war seemed to have changed nothing Polish anti-Semitism was as alive as ever. Apart from Jasinski's trial in which Niuta played so vital a part, we wish to dwell briefly on her experiences in Nazi-occupied Braslaw, followed by her life in hiding in a village with a peasant who, at the behest of the local Catholic priest, hid her and an entire Latvian Jewish family. After the war, when Niuta returned to Braslaw from the village where she lay hidden, the wife of the Polish watchmaker Krzyzanek, told her that she had watched through her window the liquidation of the ghetto. Jews in the hundreds had been assembled in the courtyard of the Folkshul and in a large hall adjoining the church. They had been kept there for three days without food or water. Then, fainting and half-dead, they had been driven to the pits -- Niuta's mother and sister among them. She had also seen Rabbi Zahorie and his family walking with the rest the Rabbi, calm and serene, at the head. This dark picture had not been, however, without its flashes of light, of goodness. True, there had been non-Jews who helped in the killings, but also many non-Jews who had helped save the hapless Jews. And this is their story. Many a Jew, faint with hunger, hounded by fear, wandering over fields, forests, dirt tracks and farms in search of a place where he could find a potato or a piece of bread for himself or his children, was taken in and cared for by a kindhearted Christian. There were many such people whose self-sacrifice we now wish to record Poles, Russians and even Lithuanians who risked their lives and the lives of their families in order to save the Jews. True enough, they did so for various reasons: from humanitarian, to a sense of victory of the Christian faith over the Jewish one, to a fear of the morrow which could have brought back the Russians who would wreak vengeance on the Nazi collaborators. Often it was simply a matter of gain, of money, of possessions. Whatever the case may be, we wish to stress time and again that many Christians, especially village folk, helped Jews in their darkest hour of need. This is borne out by the testimonies of Slawa Pincow, Niuta Kantor, Chayim Dejcz, Hanka Gurewicz, and many others. We recall with deep gratitude all those who placed their own lives in jeopardy to save Jews from certain death. There was the Szczerbinkski family that hid Yetta Fisher and several members of the Grawetz family from Dwinsk for quite a time; the family Kizlo, especially the peasant Michal, who saved Niuta Kantor and the Barkan family from Latvia. With much warmth and affection we recall the Kandzilewski family which for many months hid Sarah Katz-Mowszenzon, her husband and their small child; Jozefa Siewickaja and the Catholic priest who, despite every danger, hid and cared for the Gurewicz family the mother Rachel and her two daughters, Hanka and Riwetka. How can one ever forget the two sisters Amalia and Jadwiga Czesnowicka and their brother Alfons, who saved Mendel and Masza Maron and also Tewie and Motel Fiszer (Baruch's sons), Chana Fiszer and Motel, son of Zalman Yankel? With reverence we recall Stanislaw Szakiel who hid and cared for seventeen Jews, among them Lubowicz, his wife Chanah and their two children, Leibel and Shaul. With gratitude we mention Wasil Iwanow and his daughter Irina who kept Chiena Band hidden in their home, without the knowledge of the rest of the family, particularly their own son, a policeman. With deep regard Slawa Pincow mentions Jaszka Arciszewski, better known as "the father of the Jews." Slawa, her husband, brother, father and stepmother hid for some time in the home of the pious, kindhearted Wasil Brezko, until . . . Due to the growing activity of the partisans, the Germans began to burn down villages in reprisal. Wasil warned us of the impending danger before he and his family abandoned their home. Father then turned to us and said: 'Children, you are young and must escape. I cannot keep up; my strength has given out. Perhaps a miracle will happen?!' He then placed his hands on our heads and with tears in his eyes gave us his blessing, just as he used to do on the eve of Yom Kippur. . . . The night was bright from the flames and the dazzling snow. We ran for our live . . .When we reached the edge of the forest, we cast a glance backwards towards the spot where our parents had remained, and saw that all was aflame. No miracle had happened. . . . On that night, in those flames, the souls of our father Reb Chayim Szalom and our stepmother Gitel ascended to heaven. The kindness of the non-Jewish benefactors did not go unrewarded. After the war and the liberation, many of the Jewish survivors saved by Christians tried to compensate and reward their rescuers. To name but one instance, Masza and Mendel Maron came specially from America to meet with the Czesnowicki sisters and hand over their house as a token of gratitude. More than forty years have passed since that tragic epoch, but the memories, the pain and anguish which the survivors carry in their hearts still well up in all their horror. They clamor for expression; they should not be allowed to sink into oblivion. How can one remain unmoved when reading about the Kowno woman who, while in hiding together with the Gurewicz family, was forced to strangle her three-year-old child lest his ceaseless crying give them away; or the Jod couple, Chayim-Leiser and Chawa Cipin, no longer able to bear the loss of their three little girls murdered by the Nazis, one day took each other by the hand, came out of hiding, and gave themselves up to the Germans. Horrifying in the extreme are the accounts of those who passed through the labor and death camps. Still only children or adolescents, they walked every path of pain, suffering, hunger, loneliness, and desperation. Particularly shattering is the tale of Rivka Rukszin-Maron. In simple words she describes her experiences during that grim period: From the day the Germans entered Dubene until their defeat, I walked an endless road of tribulation and suffering, more than once seeing death before my eyes. I lived in the ghettoes of Vidz and Swiencian, passed through twelve concentration and extermination camps. On that long and tortured road I lost my parents, brothers and all my relatives, and only my sister Reisel and I remained alive. And in the camps humiliations, hunger, sickness, forced labor, blows, until finally murder or the gas ovens. In Camp Miligan we struck a bit of 'luck' as it were. We met up with our family. From there we were sent to Camp Wewie, where we worked laying railway line and then off to Zezmer, another camp. Over many long months we managed to collect a little flour. Father baked matzah for the Passover, but three weeks before this festival a selection was carried out and my mother, my father, and my brother, were sent to Ponar. That was a terrible day. I can still see the children wrenched from their mothers and their heartrending cries keep ringing in my ears. We were put into goods trains and taken to Auschwitz. A trainload of people arrived there before us and they were let out of the coaches. We heard their cries and weeping. Auschwitz would not accept us. I am certain that the Germans were not frightened off by our cries and laments. It was quite simple: the camp was full, the gas ovens overloaded, and there was no room for us . . . We moved on to Stutthof. Heavy, thick smoke belched from the chimneys of the gas chambers, which worked day and night. Three or four times a day there would be roll call, and each time we had to stand for hours on end in one spot in all kinds of weather. One day when the Germans took down the names of people selected for work, mine was among them. I even managed to smuggle my thirteen-year-old sister Reisel through the gate. We were taken to a camp near Danzig where we stayed for ten months, digging trenches. The fate of Sima Morecki-Fejgin was no better. She writes: I was one of a group sent from the Vidz ghetto to work in Camp Miligan. Among us were a few Jewish girls from Dubene. We left the ghetto on foot but were later put into cattle trucks and brought to a camp fenced off with barbed wire. It consisted of barracks with three-tier bunks. Ita Kulak, the woman in charge, noticed that there were many young girls among us. She warned us to say when being registered that we were over fifteen years old or we would be sent to an extermination camp. In Camp Oleina, my two little brothers and four-year-old sister were forcibly taken from us. I cannot describe our sorrow and pain, the cries and screams of the children at parting. . . . And so only my mother, eleven-year-old brother, Berele, and I remained. Every day, goods trains would take us to work. Our guards were German soldiers assisted by a multi-national police force, among whom was a young Pole, Janek a kindhearted fellow. One day our train stopped midway and remained standing for a long time Janek told us the reason for the hold-up: a train with many coaches packed with Jewish children. We looked in the direction that he pointed and saw hundreds of children's hands stretched out through the window bars. We knew the fate of these children ended at the death camps; alas, we could do nothing. In 1944 we were transported to Kaiserwald near Riga. Here our heads were shaved, our old rags replaced with striped uniforms and wooden clogs. We were each given a triangular piece of cloth to cover our heads, a louse-ridden blanket and of course, a number. Mine was 6757. Every day there were roll calls. From time to time the Germans would come and sort us right or left to life or death. From across the barbed wire we would often see little Berele. He told us that the grown-ups took pity on him and often gave him a little food. Once he even tried to throw us a piece of bread, but it stuck in the barbed wire. He was upset and Mother cried. Shortly afterwards a truck arrived at the camp and took away the remaining children and so we no longer saw Berele. Only Mother and I remained. . . When the front began to draw nearer we were transferred to Stutthof, an extermination camp fenced in by several rows of barbed wire. Every half-hour there was roll call. One day, while standing in the queue for our food rations, we heard piercing screams coming from the front of the queue. It turned out that the kapo had plunged a young girl into the pot of boiling soup. Later we were dished out soup from the same pot. On a certain day, when sent out to work at a different place, I saw a huge pile of shoes children's and adults'. I rummaged and found a pair of good, almost brand new shoes, which I later exchanged for a loaf of bread. For the rest go to: http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/Braslaw/bra642.html
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Updated by KLO Here 14 July, 2008
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